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Suppose I went to the supermarket three times. Is my third trip considered my "second time returning there" or my "third time returning there?" Thanks. (I know this question sounds silly, but English is my second language...)

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I think this question would have been a better fit for the recently-begun English Language Learners site. – J.R. Feb 4 '13 at 23:41
@J.R. I don't agree. I think this is a good question, and has no satisfactory answer. – Colin Fine Feb 5 '13 at 0:39
@Colin: ELL needs good questions, too. I wouldn't have mentioned the sister site if I didn't agree that it was an interesting question. – J.R. Feb 5 '13 at 1:11

You've gone to the store at a few times, t1, t2, t3, t4,...

t1 is the first time, t2 is the second time etc.

Did you return to the store at time t1? No, the meaning of 'return' is that you've been there at least once and you've visited again.

At time t2, can you say you've returned? Yes. Is t2 the first time you've returned? If you haven't visited the store anytime between t1 and t2, then yes.

On t3, how many times have you visited the store? Three. How many times have you returned to the store. Two times. So at time t3 you're retuning to the store the second time.

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This is logic, and has precious little to do with language (which is about what people actually mean and understand by something, not what a logician or anybody else thinks that they ought to mean or understand by it). – Colin Fine Feb 5 '13 at 0:37
@ColinFine: Sure, but the question is stated for the logical 'nth' time. – Mitch Feb 5 '13 at 0:40
No, the question is about what the phrase means in English. I believe (and so does David Schwartz) that it is ambiguous, contrary to your position. – Colin Fine Feb 5 '13 at 8:56

It is not a silly question. I think these expression are ambiguous, and different people (or different contexts) may interpret them inconsistently.

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I see nothing wrong with saying: "I went to the store twice already, why should I have to return for a third time?" Nor do I see any problem with saying "return for a second time" in the same way. It's ambiguous. – David Schwartz Feb 5 '13 at 1:18
A related ambiguity: If I do something three times, how many times have I repeated it? I suspect that most people would say “three” without a thought. With some thought, they might decide that “two” is the correct answer. – Scott Feb 5 '13 at 5:00
@Scott: I think you're right. As such, it might be best to use three in everyday conversation (where you don't want to stop the flow of conversation by confusing someone), but two when writing for an academic journal (where the language will probably see more scrutiny and precise correctness is highly valued). – J.R. Feb 5 '13 at 9:38

If you say

I returned for the second [or third, etc.] time.

the meaning is ambiguous. Is this the second time in total or the second revisit after the inital visit. As such, the construction should be avoided unless there is other context that explains exactly how many visits have preceeded the one you are now describing.

Perhaps a better construction might be

My initial visit was delightful. But after I returned two more times, the appeal wore off.

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  1. I go to the store to buy cheese.

  2. I return to the store to buy cheese.

  3. I return to the store once again. I have returned to the store twice. I've returned to buy cheese three times.

Case number 3 is not "returning a third time", it is returning with the intention to "buy cheese a third time".

It's ambiguous to express simply by counting returns. Many other languages have similar problems with this concept. Bib's second construction implies that the word "more" is useful: "I came to buy cheese. This is the second time I've come back for more." (Or ",,,the third time I've come for it.")

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