Linguistics and Scope Ambiguities: Case Study

May 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

A criminal case in the US which was the subject of much comment a few years ago involved a man who took a photo of three women engaged in sexual activity, and replaced their heads with photos of children. He was charged with a crime under the following law:

Tennessee sex crimes law which states in part: “It is unlawful for any person to knowingly possess material that includes a minor engaged in simulated sexual activity that is patently offensive.”

If we allow scope ambiguity involving the scope of the adjective simulated, this law has two possible interpretations:

a) A simulated minor engaged in a sexual activity.
b) A minor engaged in a simulated sexual activity.

That is:

a) simulation of
b) minor engaged in a simulation of

Extensive discussion of this case: pos=16


“[…] even if the nude adult women in the photos had been engaged in sexual activity (even just striking a mildly sexy pose), the law still would not apply, because the law requires an actual minor to actually be engaged in something, even if that “something” is simulated sexual activity.”

“The D.A. appears to have confused “material that includes a minor engaged in simulated sexual activity” with “material that simulates a minor engaged in sexual activity”.”

Syntactic ambiguity: sentences that can be interpreted as more than one thing. Different grammatical structures can be applied to the same string of words: “He ate the cookies on the couch” could mean he ate the cookies that were on the couch (as opposed to the table) or that he sat on the couch eating cookies.

Semantic ambiguity: words or phrases that have diffuse or ambiguous meaning due to widespread informal usage i.e. the phrase “you could do with” is an example of semantic ambiguity, as it has almost no exact meaning or interpretative quality. Usually this applies in the context of larger arguments where idiomatic expression are not well defined.

Lexical ambiguity: a word that has multiple meanings within the language: “bank”; a financial institution or the side of a river.

“Previous research suggests that there are several types of information that might constrain which interpretation a comprehender adopts for a scope ambiguous sentence. These types include (at least): (1) structural positions of the quantified phrases in the syntactic or semantic representation of the sentence: (2) lexical biases of particular quantifier terms to take wide or narrow scope; and (3) real world knowledge such that one interpretation might be more plausible in context than the other(s).” (p246)

All of these types of information play a role but not at the same time. Scope disambiguation needs to identify and specify when different types of information are utilized.

Linear order: the preferred scope ordering of quantified phrases corresponds to the left-to-right ordering of the phrases in the surface structure of the sentence. (p247) The first encountered phrase has wide scope. Hence in the following comparison of active and passive, in the first instance “a minor” has wide scope, and in the second “simulated sexual activity” has wide scope.

Need to analyze the difference between active and passive and re-phrase the quote from the law to its alternative form. This may shed light on the meaning:

“a minor engaged in simulated sexual activity”
“simulated sexual activity depicting a minor”

the first clearly meaning an actual minor engaged in actual simulated (or real) sexual activity.
the second perhaps including the facts of the case. A minor was depicted, even if through photo-shop editing etc.

The question perhaps takes on a lexical or semantic dimension here requiring the specificity of “a minor” as to whether an actual minor or the depiction of a minor (a secondary source).

Thematic Hierarchy

“[…] a phrase that expresses a thematic role that is higher on the hierarchy than that expressed by another phrase will have wide scope over that phrase. According to this thematic hierarchy principle, and given the hierarchy relations Agent>Experiencer>Theme, a phrase that expresses an Agent or Experiencer will preferably have wide scope over a phrase expressing a Theme, and this preference might be stronger for a phrase expressing an Agent than one expressing an Experiencer.” (p248)

In this case Agent > Experiencer > Theme would correlate:

Agent: a person
Experiencer: a minor
Theme: simulated sexual activity

Reference: Kurtzman, MacDonald: Resolution of quantifier scope ambiguities (uni melb access)


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