Monday, December 08, 2008

Linguistically created zombies

A&E just ran a documentary (repeat will be in a couple of hours) about Meth Mountain, a community in northern Alabama that is just overrun with meth addicts.  I didn't watch it, not really planning to.  What got me to blog was one sentence fragment out of the description of the program on A&E's website: "Dr. Mary Holley, an obstetrician whose meth-addicted brother committed suicide and who is now on a mission to clean up Meth Mountain."

On first reading, I took that to mean that Dr. Holley's brother first committed suicide, and then (presumably as a ghost or revenant, or other such thing) embarked on an undead mission to clean up Meth Mountain.  Of course, this reading is not what A&E intended; it's obvious that they meant that Dr. Holley (and not her deceased sibling) is on a mission.

This is a case of an ambiguous antecedant; the pronoun "who" (in "who is now on a mission") is ambiguous, and could refer either to Dr. Holley or to her brother.  In general, when a pronoun is of ambiguous reference, there is a preference for binding it to the most recently used noun phrase to which it could reasonably apply.  Unfortunately, in this case that's Dr. Holley's brother, not Dr. Holley herself, and that creates the unfortunate image of a rampaging meth-addicted zombie trying to chase out all the other meth addicts. 

I'm not sure how to write this noun phrase so as to avoid this ambiguity; in any case, it amused me, and I hope it amuses you too.