Ambiguity

I was exchanging email with a colleague about sentence simplification (see https://github.com/sebastianruder/NLP-progress/blob/master/english/simplification.md  if you need an intro). To illustrate a point about it, I picked a sentence basically at random from my favorite corpus. It happened to be:

However, in this instance, cells grow in aggregates and do not require centrifugation as they settle under gravity.

As I started to convert this to several simpler sentences, the degree of ambiguity I found was really surprising. (It pretty much always is, we just don’t typically notice it). It got to be fun as I deliberately started looking for alternative interpretations.

cells
Would that be biological cells, prison cells, some other kind of cell? Of course, it’s really some specific combo of cell line and treatment that can only be determined from analysing “this instance”. That’s one of the problems with sentence simplification. But I digress. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell for more senses of the term than you imagine.
grow “in”
Here they are talking about growing in clumps, but normally I think about containers when hearing “grow in”.  A colleague is looking at the scientific literature on the cell culture media (very fancy Gatorade) in which cells grow, so “grow in cell media” came quickly to my mind.
aggregates
Would that be clumps, or the stuff used to make concrete?  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggregate for some more senses of the term.
grow in aggregates
So do the cells grow in groups, or do they find rock and sand to be a hospitable environment? Won’t my colleague be surprised!
settle
Would that be the cells falling to the bottom of the container we were not talking about earlier? Or perhaps they are going to homestead new territory? Will they settle down like children, or settle for less like their parents? Or perhaps they reach a legal accommodation? (Which itself is ambiguous, but we don’t need to digress into their trek to a hotel since they still didn’t have a container in which to live). Being a verb, settle’s Wikipedia disambiguation page isn’t quite so fun, but it is still worth a quick look if you have been reading this far and looking at the other ones.
under
“Under [the force of]” is a much less common sense of the term than “beneath”. And I must say that ‘under’, being a preposition, and an adverb, and an adjective, is terribly under-appreciated. It’s quite the over-achiever. (Hey, if you come to a site that says it is words about words, you have to expect a a few puns).
gravity
Issac Newton can be mentioned here, not only for the apple falling down, but also for the gravity of his nature as a vindictive SOB. Wikipedia’s disambiguation page about gravity is mostly a list of books, songs, and movies by that name, but eventually it gets to some more interesting senses.

I hope you all had some fun reading this, I certainly had fun writing it. I’d like to say that I’ll post again in a few days, rather than a few years, but we shall see.

 

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