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Subject: Question regarding semantics of resolution for college policy debate
Question: I am a policy debater at the University of Michigan. For the entire
year we debate about a single resolution and have to propose
policies that fall under the scope of the resolution. Part of the
debate is figuring out the best way to interpret words in the
resolution, and a prerequisite to that is an understanding of the
semantics of the language used in the resolution.

This year's national resolution is:

''Resolved: The United States Federal Government should
substantially reduce restrictions on and/or substantially increase
financial incentives for energy production in the United States of
one or more of the following: coal, crude oil, natural gas, nuclear
power, solar power, wind power.''

My question regards the prepositional phrase ''in the United
States.'' Does this phrase modify the verbs (''reduce... and/or...
increase,'' meaning that the action must take place in the United
States), the direct objects (''restrictions... and/or... financial
incentives,'' meaning that the restrictions/incentives must be
lifted/provided in the United States), or the other prepositional
phrase (''for energy production,'' meaning that the energy
production must occur in the United States)?

Reply: How a prepositional phrase fits into a complicated surrounding grammatical structure is a standard, well-known source of ambiguity in English, and it is usually very difficult to argue that one interpretation is definitely "right" and any alternative definitely "wrong". That said, in many cases one can certainly characterize one interpretation as more natural than some or all alternatives, perhaps because for the alternative interpretations there would be a more plausible place to put the prepositional phrase. In those terms, I would certainly see your last interpretation (the energy production must occur in the USA) as the most natural one. It is the only interpretation which creates a motive for placing "in the US" right next to "energy production", which otherwise would be an unexpected place to find an adverbial element inserted.

Geoffrey Sampson
Reply From: Geoffrey Richard Sampson      click here to access email
 
Date: 31-Jan-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Question regarding semantics of resolution for college policy debate    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (31-Jan-2013)

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