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September 03, 2007

Cars only

When I was in law school, I shared an apartment with a friend who was studying linguistics. I can't tell you how many hours we spent discussing, and arguing about, whether certain sentences were ambiguous. I was basically his subject. He'd ask me questions about syntax and meaning, and when I'd respond, we'd often disagree. I once polled about 30 members of my law school class on one of the examples. (You can tell I must have been a really popular guy.)

I was driving back from New York today and noticed a sign in lights on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike near the southern end. The sign said: "CARS ONLY USE SHOULDER"

There are three possible meanings of this sign.

1. Only cars may use the shoulder.

2. Cars may use only the shoulder. (Cars, only use shoulder, not main roadway.)

3. Cars may only use the shoulder (not look at it or do anything else to it).

Sentence 3 seems pretty unlikely, and you'd have to interpret "cars" to include the drivers of the cars.

I'd say there's an ambiguity between Sentences 1 and 2, not that it was particularly relevant today, when traffic wasn't yet heavy. Sentence 1 makes more sense, but it's not obvious from the sign that this is what it means.

About a half mile later, near an exit, I saw a sign that said something like this: "Cars Only / Cars may use shoulder if traffic on ramp is heavy."

The moral of the story is: Don't use telegraph-style signs when dealing with lawyers who have friends who are linguists.