English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

When 'curious' is used as an adjective (e.g., in the construction "A is a curious B"), there is ambiguity as to whether the noun it modifies is:-

  • The subject: A feels curious (e.g., "Humans are a curious species" meaning humans want to know about everything)
  • An object: A is an object of curiosity (e.g., "Dung beetles are a curious species" meaning dung beetles are interesting to us)

How can we resolve this ambiguity? Is there an official way to do it? Both are correct 'de facto' as both versions of usage are common.

share|improve this question
up vote 1 down vote accepted

You resolve the ambiguity by understanding the semantics. It is not a matter of syntax.

Curious modifies species in both cases. It just means something quite different in the one case compared with what it means in the other.

It never applies to the subject. And that is not an object, since be is not transitive.

share|improve this answer
Thanks. 1) How come there isn't a specific way to address the 2 different meanings? 2) What does 'that' refer to in in your last point? – YatharthROCK Apr 19 '13 at 17:58
@YatharthROCK Because everyone can tell whether you mean inquisitive or interesting. And that refers to species, which is not an object because be is not transitive. – tchrist Apr 19 '13 at 18:52

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.