Parsing natural language

Is the following statement true or false?

IF YOU HAVE TWO AND ONE IS TAKEN AWAY
THEN YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LEFT

This is true, right? I mean, it’s obvious. Whether you think of this as being a simple algebra problem or just common sense, that’s the answer that most of you just gave.

The problem is, you’re wrong. Sort of. Without other cues, a machine attempting to parse this statement could legitimately look at this as involving a set of things labeled “one” and “two.” In this light, if “one” is taken away, you have only “two” left. It is true that we can write the question without ambiguity, usually by adding quotation marks, but this is much more difficult with spoken language.

Just something to think about the next time you’re cursing an automated phone attendant…

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