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I've read about a Dutch volunteer, who died in Syria "fighting with the rebels". Obviously from the context you could understand, that he was fighting for the rebels, against the government troops. Article was written by non-native speaker.

Is "to fight with" ambiguous and can be used both as "to fight for" and "to fight against"? Or is is unambiguous and only "to fight against" is the only valid interpretation?

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Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/14994/8019 ('Gadhafi forces retreat') – TimLymington Apr 16 '13 at 17:00
"With" tends to act as a bit of an auto-antonym in many situations, since its meaning evolved from an original sense of "against" or "apart". – 200_success Jul 9 at 20:44
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Yes, to fight with is potentially ambiguous.

For example, most if not all of thousands of written instances of fought with the French Resistance will mean on the side of / alongside the Resistance.

On the other hand, most instances of fought with the devil will mean against the devil.

If there's any danger of being misunderstood, you can always just use alongside or against to make things crystal clear. But usually the context makes the intended meaning obvious.

Also note that if you don't use any preposition at all (fought the French resistance), it always means against (there are only two of those, because it's not a very common thing to say).

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You can also say: "After they ran out of bullets, they fought with sticks and stones." – GEdgar Apr 17 '13 at 1:11
@GEdgar: Or "Even though they were hopelessly outnumbered, they fought with valour to the bitter end" – FumbleFingers Apr 17 '13 at 1:22
As you can see, most prepositions are by nature quite ambiguous, and usually require a certain degree of context to discern their meaning. – Ataraxia Apr 17 '13 at 16:27
@Zetta Suro: I'm not sure it's really a matter of "most prepositions being ambiguous". After all, there are some quite subtle nuances involved in "He spoke French with/to/at me", for example. I think more often the "ambiguity" is inherent in the verbs, and prepositions usually do a pretty good job of making fine distinctions. In the case of fight with X, the default interpretation is usually alongside, for the simple reason that if you mean against, you can convey that sense without even using a preposition. – FumbleFingers Apr 17 '13 at 16:40

In a word, yes, it is ambiguous. "Fight with" can refer to either fighting against, or fighting for. Think of the phrase "fight with" as simply a statement that two parties are fighting in the same battle. This doesn't say anything about what side of the battle either side is on.

It is worth noting though that "fight with" usually only refers to arguments and squabbles, normally only between two people. In the context of a military confrontation, it is more likely implying that the two were on the same side (i.e. the Dutchman was on the side of the rebels, in this case).

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