June 20, 2003
I recently wrote an essay on ambiguity introduced into sentences because of the absence of commas (see “Commas”). I think this has made me more sensitive to liguinstic ambiguity generally. The latest instance I’ve noticed was in a television commercial for La Quinta Inns. I thought I had heard something like “stay three nights and get one night free,” though the company’s Web site says: “Stay 3 times. Get a night free!” Consider this latter offer. It suggests that you must register at a La Quinta Inn on three different occasions, but do you get a free night during your third stay, or does your free night come on the fourth or subsequent stay? One cannot tell from the slogan. In such cases, the ambiguity usually favors the vendor, rather than the customer. That is indeed the case here. After three stays, one earns a “free night certificate,” and the fine print explains that you cannot speed up your certificate earning by checking out and checking back in on the same day.