Monday, September 14, 2009


I recently heard or read the following phrases.
  1. former cop killer
  2. ideal compromiser
  3. even prime numbers have their uses
In each case it was ambiguous. The first two intentionally and the last one by accident.
  1. On the TV show MONK the main character, Adrian Monk, is a former cop. There was an episode where someone tried to shoot him. The shooter was called A former cop killer. The show played the ambiguity for laughs- did they mean someone who used to shoot cops or someone who shoots former cops? What would be the proper way to write that? former-cop killer would work, though I am not sure the English language allows hyphens.
  2. On the TV show BETTER OFF TED a character was asked to compromise her ideals. Her friend Ted said (I may be paraphrasing) Don't make her into an ideal compromiser!. This was also played for laughs--- did he mean that she should not compromise her ideals, or did she mean she should not get really good at compromising? I do not know how to disambiguate that.
  3. In the book PRIME OBSESSION (about the Riemann Hypothesis- both the math and the history) they make the point that pure math can have surprising applications. I was reading this book to my darling (I often read her math books to help her fall asleep) and I read Even prime numbers have their uses. She perked up and said Are they saying that 2 is useful? Well, I suppose it is since you can't get from 1 to 3 without it. I think she was sleep talking. The author should have just said Prime numbers have their uses, but is there some way to keep the phrase as he has it and disambiguate it? Perhaps Even the prime numbers have their uses; however, that still sounds odd since it sounds like you are saying of course the composites are useful but who would have thought the primes were! which is not what he is trying to convey. Better to just say Even Number Theory has its uses. Hmmm- that might be interpreted as the theory of even numbers...


  1. Really liked the "that still sounds odd".

  2. See Ken Clarkson's page on making your English "more idiomatic and colorful" ..

  3. Regarding hyphens, I must say that I see them here and there all the time, and since English is not my mother tongue, I'd assumed they were perfectly normal, and moreover, allowed.

    By the way, there's an Argentinian musical group called 'Les Luthiers'. They take advantage of ambiguities and odd rhymes in the language. Unfortunately it's mostly for Spanish speakers, but if you understand some Spanish you can try and listen to their song about the Theorem of Thales.

  4. Hyphens are allowed in English and are necessary in the following situation. If I have an adjective "a", an adjective "b", and a noun "n", then "a-b n" is correct when "a" modifies "b" and "b" modifies "n". However, "a b n" (or "a, b n") is correct when "a" and "b" both modify "n" directly. Purdue has extensive grammar rules at their OWL site:

    In your first example of "former cop killer", apply example 1 from OWL. It should be written as "former-cop killer" because "former" modifies "cop".

  5. A well-written and very funny grammar book---whose title illustrates GASARCH's point---is Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

    We recommend Truss' book to students who are struggling in writing their thesis.

  6. If I start out with the ring of integers modulo 10, and the subset {2,4,6,8,0}, and then add the number 1 to that subset, that makes me an "ideal compromiser".

    (I guess I should keep this comment anonymous)

  7. purple people eater!

  8. This is were knowledge of another language is useful. For example, in french it would translate like :

    "Même les nombre premiers ont leur utilité"

    where there is no ambiguity ;-)

  9. I think "ideal-compromiser" conveys that the ideals are being compromised, as opposed to "ideal compromiser" where "ideal" is the adjective modifying the noun.

  10. ...I am not sure the English language allows hyphens

    Of course it does! See, e.g., here

  11. "This is were knowledge of another language..."

    Actually, this is "where" knowledge of how to spell could be useful.

  12. The first example "former cop killer" has at least a third interpretation: it could be a former-cop, who is a killer (I assume the episode excludes that possibility).