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A tiger can't win a mental fight with a man, but it can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

Why is the sentence above read as?

A tiger can't win a mental fight with a man, but it can rip the man apart like [it can rip apart] a rag doll.

But not as?

A tiger can't win a mental fight with a man, but it can rip the man apart like a rag doll [does rip the man apart].

Ellipsis could work both ways here, right?

Of course logic warrants only the first version, but grammar could work both ways here.

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    Note that this ambiguity is only possible in languages in which nouns aren't properly declined or don't even have a proper accusative (I'm looking at you, English). In the tiger-rag doll comparison, both are nominative; in the man-rag doll comparison, both were accusative, if English had one. (There is the oblique case which shows in pronouns; a serial killer may have ripped him apart like [an aforementioned] her. Unfortunately the oblique case is often used "incorrectly" with pronouns: "Who? Me?", complicating matters further.) – Peter - Reinstate Monica May 24 at 12:24
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    I don't think this sentence is an example of ellipsis. Grammatically, there's no omission here, the sentence is complete. The fact that you can insert more words doesn't detract from that — you can always do that. – Konrad Rudolph May 24 at 16:54
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica What do you consider "proper" declination? Languages exhibit a wide variety of case systems, both in quantity and quality. – chepner May 24 at 18:04
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    @chepner Tongue-in-cheek: A "proper" declination would be one that resolves this ambiguity ;-). I'm not even partial here: In German, feminine nouns don't distinguish accusative and nominative either. – Peter - Reinstate Monica May 24 at 18:25
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You're right. The sentence is formally ambiguous, and only real-world knowledge allows us to choose among possible interpretations.

This is common in language (which almost always developed naturally, rather than being designed).

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    This sort of equivocation is commonly used as the setup to a joke, where the punchline makes you suddenly reconsider the statement the other way around. For example, "Be careful! That tiger could tear you apart like a rag doll!" "Oh, you have dangerous rag dolls around here, do you?" – Darth Pseudonym May 23 at 23:46
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    @DarthPseudonym The Marx brothers "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" seems like the canonical joke on this ("How he got in my pajamas, I don't know!") – Owen Reynolds May 24 at 2:44
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    @User40475 On the contrary, it is "bad form" to purposefully write verbosely to avoid ambiguity where the meaning would already be clear to any reasonable person in the target audience (less so in technical writing perhaps, where clarity can be a goal in and of itself). It is not incorrect as such, but the original sentence in your question sounds much more natural than either alternative. – NotThatGuy May 24 at 15:12
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    @MichaelHarvey I've heard of tigers, a Martian, and a computer... (Sorry, in a question about semantic ambiguity, it was irresistible.) – Darrel Hoffman May 24 at 17:30
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    @DarrelHoffman Until now I was just sitting here wondering why not having heard of Martians or computers might cause ambiguity with this sentence. I would probably have put a "say" or "for example" in there or moved that clause. – NotThatGuy May 24 at 18:32
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I think it's actually neither of these, and the intended meaning is something like

A tiger can't win a mental fight with a man, but it can rip the man apart like [a child can rip apart] a rag doll.

Of course, even for a tiger, ripping apart a rag doll would be much easier than ripping apart a man. But tigers don't generally play with rag dolls; children do (or, rather, did). And rag dolls are easy to rip apart; even a child can do that. The point is that in the paws of a tiger, a man has no more defence to being ripped apart than a rag doll would in the hands of a child.

However, there's nothing in the sentence to indicate precisely what is meant, and this all comes from context - but a context which the writer might expect to be familiar.

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    Thank you. That's yet another way of looking at it. So the bottom line is that context decides everything – user40475 May 24 at 13:02
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Sure. If instead of rag doll, it had lion or crocodile, it could be read that way.

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    Yeah, it could be read that way about a ragdoll, too. It's all about the context. – mcalex May 24 at 2:22
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"Like a ragdoll" is an idiom. Obviously a ragdoll is a doll made from old rags, which was a thing 100 years ago. They have no solid support which means their arms and legs flop around when you thrown them and parts come off easily (and they're in the shape of people). So anytime (this is icky) a person has many parts torn off or is thrown so their limbs and head flop around at bad angles, we say they're being treated like a ragdoll. In game making, we even call it "ragdoll physics" to accomplish that. If you want to Google, there are ragdoll cats so try "ragdoll -cat" or "like a ragdoll -cat" (warning -- about 1/3rd are sex references).

So, if we wanted to use "wet newspaper" it might sound better as: "a tiger can rip a man apart as if he were wet newspaper". But everyone knows the idiom "like a ragdoll" and that's what you'd say if you wanted to get across how the tiger is throwing them around while it mauls them. For that reason we wouldn't say an army of killer rats rips someone apart like a ragdoll.

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  • Rag dolls are readily available today, at for instance Etsy, eBay, Amazon, or your local WalMart. – jamesqf May 24 at 16:12
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    I predict that newspapers (at least in paper form) will become a thing of the past long before ragdolls do. – Darrel Hoffman May 24 at 18:37
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    The sentence is being used differently than an idiom. Rippable versus flopping. – AdamO May 24 at 22:42
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    @AdamO Look at it this way: the sentence could safely end with "rip a man apart". Or they could've gotten creative and added an inventive metaphor. But they added a standby. "Like a ragdoll" adds the understood meaning of his limbs flailing around as he's tossed helplessly while being ripped apart (again, ewww). – Owen Reynolds May 25 at 1:45
  • ummm, the sentence "a tiger can rip a man apart as if he were wet newspaper" is equally ambiguous. Could a tiger rip a man apart as if the man were a wet newspaper or could the tiger rip a man apart as if the tiger were a wet newspaper? – Martin - Reinstate Monica May 26 at 7:47
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As others have already stated, both are grammatically possible. We distinguish the different meanings based on our knowledge of the real world.

I'm answering to add that this is closely related to the AI challenge known as the Winograd schema, which consists of sentences where an ambiguous pronoun changes reference based on the overall meaning of the sentence. The classic example is:

The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.

If the blank is "feared," it means the council was afraid of violence; if the blank is "advocated," it means the demonstrators advocated violence.

Machine learning models, which lack any real-world knowledge/experience, usually find this very difficult; but any speaker familiar with the words will have no trouble understanding the difference.

EDIT: Here's an interesting set of Winograd schemas, including in non-English languages.

This is part of a bigger general pattern: meaning doesn't directly proceed from words. Rather, words serve to narrow down contextually possible meanings, with (at least some minimal) mutual understanding coming first.

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  • This is such an excellent answer!! Thank you very much for a well-written and informative answer. Eager to read further about "Winograd Schema", @Tiercelet :) – user40475 May 25 at 15:20
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    Thanks @User40475! I've added a link to a lot more Winograd schemas, including in non-English languages. – Tiercelet May 25 at 15:25
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Note how the first interpretation is dropping part of the other clause:

A tiger can't win a mental fight with a man, but it can rip the man apart like [it can rip] a rag doll [apart].

In (formal) Dutch anyway, this is the correct way to "drop words" in a sentence (and the other suggestions would be invalid), but English being English of course has no such strong rules.

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    Interestingly, the "drop words" is "samentrekking" in Dutch (see nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samentrekking_(grammatica)) but it's suggested English translation (contraction) is only about things like "I am" v.s. "I'm", not about how it works at clause level and removing whole groups of words. I tried some searching but unable to find what this is called. – Cryvate May 24 at 14:01
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    In English it is the same. Words that aren't need are dropped making the sentence shorter and no less understandable (to a Br English speaker) because the context makes it clear. Another 'full' sentence way of expressing it might be "A tiger can't win a mental fight with a man, but it can rip the man apart [as if he were] a rag doll." In this example we'd replace "as if he were" with "like". – charmer May 25 at 10:39

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