Morpheme size matters

I’m reading Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, by Gary Taubes (after listening to the recent econtalk interview with him), and I confused and amused myself by mis-parsing something that should have been obvious, given the context (a book about food). That’s right: it’s a second serving of “fun with structural ambiguity.”

Whereas yesterday’s example was syntactic and had two fairly semantically reasonable parses, today’s is morphological and has two phonotactically reasonable parses, only one of which gives an actual English word (and so only one that is semantically reasonable). Here’s the sentence:

The Pima were the flag bearers in a parade of witnesses whose testimony never gets heard and who demonstrate that it’s possible to become fat when you’re poor, hardworking, and even underfed.

I mis-parsed the last word in the sentence, reading it as [un[derfed]], rather than the rather more obvious [under[fed]]. I spent a good second or two wondering what it meant to be derfed.

This entry was posted in fun with structural ambiguity, language. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Morpheme size matters

  1. M. VanDam says:

    a professor of mine [possibly my dissertation director] told the story of being misled about something, parsing it as the past tense of a verb “misle.” He pronounced it /mIz.ld/.

    I bet you didn’t know I read your blog.

  2. noahmotion says:

    Who or what is your dissertation director?

    Zoë did the same thing with ‘misled’ recently (I almost included a mention of it in the post), as did someone else I know, but I can’t remember who (this one was less likely to have been included in the post, for obvious reasons).

Comments are closed.