to the police, geddit

One of the witnesses was being questioned today about an incident involving an encounter with the police while he was driving a vehicle of, how to put it, perhaps somewhat dubious provenance.

Excitingly, and presumably unbeknownst to either of the interlocutors, it was in fact a classic example of an attachment ambiguity. The exchange went something like this:

Defence counsel: So, Mr X, you thought you were stopped because someone reported you driving the vehicle to the police?

Witness: Driving it to the police? Naw, someone reported me.

Defence: No, someone reported you driving the vehicle to the police, is that correct?

Funnily enough, this was the same lawyer who kept sneakily repeating back all the dialect forms in this witness’s answers, apparently in an attempt to make him look daft, but he had no way of attempting to resolve this ambiguity apart from by putting extra emphasis on the offending prepositional phrase – which obviously didn’t help, because it only brought the location of the ambiguity into greater focus.

I’ll spare you the tree diagrams, but basically ‘to the police’ was meant to be attached to ‘reported’ in the original question, and when the misunderstanding occurred the easiest thing would have been to rephrase the question to something like ‘someone reported to the police that you were driving the vehicle.’ But it sounded like the witness was only speaking in the interests of accuracy – of course he’d no intention of going remotely in the direction of the police if he could help it!

So there you go – more fun in the day of a linguist – when I can’t concentrate properly on metalinguistic awareness and suprasegmentals and whatnot, I suppose syntactic ambiguities will have to do.

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2 thoughts on “to the police, geddit

  1. I’m surprised that, as a juror, you’re speaking of the case you’re on in such detail – actually, that you’re speaking about it at all. Here in the US, if I were on a jury, I could actually be arrested for blogging about a case I was sitting on as a member of a jury. Jurors here are strictly admonished to not even speak of the case to each other until the case is formally remanded to the jury – much less speak of it to family members, or on a blog.

    I guess British law must be different in that regard. (Still, it’s interesting!)

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  2. As far as I’m aware, we’re not meant to discuss what we discuss as a jury, but all the evidence is being heard in public, so i’ve been trying not to say anything that’s not already in the public domain. We can talk about it amongst the jury at any stage, but only in the jury room itself. (This particular witness had already been convicted of what he’d been accused of w.r.t this *alleged!* incident so i don’t think anyone would object to what i said about him here… eek, hope not anyway)

    Unfortunately it looks like it might drag on into Wednesday now (isntead of finishing on tues as they’d originally estimated) which is a bit of a pain. Someone should tell defence lawyers to get to the point! Plus the food isn’t that great :-(

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