Factors Influencing Interpretation of Humorous Ambiguities
What makes something humorous? Often, humor is found through peculiarities of language. One such peculiarity is the different definitions that are related to the same word. When the correct choice of these definitions is unclear it results in an ambiguity.
In the 1970's David Swinney did a study involving cross-modal priming. This research supported the idea that all meanings of ambiguous words are activated regardless of the context. To decide which interpretation is the correct one we generally use five factors; frequency, prosody, context, syntax, and plausibility.
Frequency is the rate of occurrence of a particular meaning of a word or phrase in everyday language. Generally, when we see an ambiguous word we immediately consider its most frequent definition. Prosody, the rhythm and intonation of a word or phrase refers to verbal language, and therefore will not be considered further in our analysis.
Context is the words around the ambiguous phrase that provide clues to meaning. Syntax refers the way the words are put together structurally, and also gives clues to the meaning of ambiguous words. Plausibility refers to the realistic possibility of the word or phrase, in other words the logic of the phrase.
We use these factors in different degrees depending on the word or phrase we are trying to understand. In some cases these factors do not lead to the same conclusion for everyone, frequency, for example, may be different depending on experience. Generally however, plausibility provides a clear support for one interpretation of an ambiguity over another. To understand further these factors, let us take a look at several examples of actual newspaper headlines considered humorous.
"Eye Drops off Shelf" in this example the ambiguity is whether "eye" or "eye drops" is the subject of the sentence. If it is "eye" then the sentence is interpreted as an anatomical object falling off a shelf. However, if the subject is "eye drops" than we learn that a product has been removed from the shelf.
The anatomical interpretation is suggested by the frequency of the two choices. We are more often exposed to the word "eye" on it's own then "eye drops". Most learn the anatomical reference to "eye" as very young children. However, the phrase "eye drops" doesn't even enter our vocabulary until much later. Therefore, it is much more reasonable that "eye" by itself is the more frequent occurrence.
We are most likely to adopt the second interpretation led by plausibility. The product being taken off the shelf is much more plausible, it is easy to imagine a product being recalled due to safety reasons etc. However, it is incredibly unlikely that a piece of a person's anatomy would fall off the shelf.
The context of the phrase also leads us to adopt the second interpretation. The use of the word "drops" rather than "falls" or even "rolls" also leads us to take the second...