Police Can’t Stop Drinking

The title of this post comes from my anthropology reading (Harvard has conveniently put it online) as an example of English syntactical ambiguity. The authors claim it has “at least three” meanings, and translate two of them into Italian… the third is left as an exercise to the reader.

Perhaps I’ve been addled by a thick stack of absurd people claiming differences in color-processing among blue-eyed vs. brown-eyed Missouri freshmen, or perhaps I’m a closet Italian, but I can’t find the third meaning. Help?

It’s interesting that examples of ambiguity in these sorts of papers are often drawn from newspaper headlines. After all, the headline is a young thing, barely as old as the printing press, and subject to constraints no sensible English speaker would obey in other circumstances. Judging English from headlines is equivalent to feeding Chinese speakers a poorly-translated story and concluding that Chinese can’t handle counterfactual reasoning (which happened elsewhere in the reading packet).

But enough of that, I’ve finished the readings, so I’ve got a midterm to take. Cheerio.


  1. G wrote:

    The cops are unable to desist from enjoying their beverage.
    The cops can’t apply the brakes properly whilst guzzling Yoo Hoo.
    Whatever it is, the cops can’t do it, and oh by the way, you shouldn’t be indulging in that fashion.
    Or something?

  2. grid wrote:

    G: I would change the last of your descriptions to read “The cops are unable to deter others from drinking.”
    Basically, the ambiguity is in the subjecct… ie, is it the police who can’t stop, or the police who can’t stop some implied third party? (And hence, I think, is ’stop’ being used as a verb or noun?)
    G’s second meaning strikes me as the weakest of the three, and the least “likely” to be the true meaning of the phrase. It was the last one I saw… was it the one you werne’t seeing Yami?

  3. yami wrote:

    Yeah, it was – I got the “police are alcoholics” / “drunken frat boys are intractable” dichotomy (that’s also what they translated into Italian). But I’m not convinced that it makes sense at all without the preposition.

  4. Ferro Lad wrote:

    Police can’t enforce Prohibition?
    Police can’t apprehend Public Enemy #1, Jack Quincy Drinking, of the Lakeshore Drinkings?
    Police are being *forcibly* liquored up?
    …I’ve run out of options now, I think…

  5. Chris wrote:

    I am stumped, how is possible that stop is being used as a noun, the syntax makes no sense, and the whole cant stop (while) drinking may be a possible translation but is definitely not implied by the English, I have a feeling that the only way to come up with the third meaning is to convert everything in to symbols and deduce the meaning logically, and then again I have a lingering suspicion that its bullshit. For instance I wasnt convinced that the Chinese translation for the sentence “If you weren’t leaving tommorrow, you would be deported” wasnt equivalent on the semantic level, but the damn author gives no indication on what criteria the two sentences would be deemed to be not equivalent. In any case its quite impossible to understand the history of conginitive linguistics in 20 or so pages, and therefore my head is spinning, fuck this guy is what I say. But I’m determined to find that elusive third meaning.

  6. yami wrote:

    Ferro Lad’s got it. Jack Herbert Drinking is on the rampage again! As opposed to Jack Daniels Drinking, which was already covered by the easy meaning.

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