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  • The bird has two yellow spots on its wings.

versus

  • The bird has a yellow spot on both wings.

Do they mean the same?

Which one describes more accurately the yellow spots of the following bird?

enter image description here

(Other alternatives are welcomed too).

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3  
Strange, I thought this was a very dumb question. I'm amazed it got 5 votes and a question with 43. –  janoChen Feb 3 at 16:12
2  
See Parkinson's Law of Triviality. –  Robert Harvey Feb 3 at 18:06
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Curious, having just signed up I find I cannot answer this question, but I can comment! Anyway, mathematicians often have the need of being exceedingly precise in their formulations, to be sure what can (or cannot) be inferred from them. The (for me ultimate) unambigous formulation would be "The bird has two wings, each having exactly one yellow spot on it." In case the definition of "bird" implies having two wings one could simplify to "The bird has exactly one yellow spot on each of its wings." –  Marc van Leeuwen Feb 6 at 9:55
    
For those who might wonder, this is a Black Cuckooshrike. –  andy256 Apr 22 at 1:03

4 Answers 4

up vote 138 down vote accepted

The most accurate description would be a yellow spot on each wing.

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5  
This phrase is unambiguous, which is why it got my +1 vote. –  Ian Lewis Feb 3 at 12:28
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@IanLewis It's (relatively) unambiguous for the case of a bird's wings, since it's not really possible for the same spot to be on both wings. In other constructions it's not unambiguous though; "there is a patron who frequents each of two shops" might mean one shared patron or two patrons. That said, "a yellow spot on each wing" is what I'd use, too; I'm only pointing out the some of the unambiguity is due to context. –  Joshua Taylor Feb 3 at 15:17
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This is the first answer that came into my head when I read the question. –  Adsy Feb 3 at 16:00
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Well, since you have hit the rep cap, I'll upvote on this answer tomorrow so that it counts! –  Bleeding Fingers Feb 3 at 16:31
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@JoshuaTaylor: If you'd said "A patron visits each of two shops", I would consider it ambiguous, but IMHO "there is a patron who..." suffices to disambiguate it: the same patron visits both shops. If there were two patrons, "each of two shops has a patron who visits it" would indicate that. –  supercat Feb 4 at 16:00

Two yellow spots on its wings.

This would give me the idea that there might be two spots on each wing.

A yellow spot on both wings.

I think this is correct, and it does make clear to me that there is one spot on each wing, but it may also be read as one yellow spot extending over both wings.

The main thing is, when we are talking about birds, we know they generally have two wings. You might even describe it as:

A yellow spot on the wing.

And people would assume (as birds tend to have identical, if mirrored) wings, that this goes for all wings the bird possesses.

Another option, and I think the most readable, would be

A yellow spot on each wing.

I would avoid mentioning the total number of spots, as you will risk confusing people: does two spots mean two spots per wing or two spots per two wings.

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7  
I would (or might) understand “a yellow spot on both wings” to understand that the bird has one yellow spot that spans both wings (and therefore also across its back). ‘Each wing’ is the only option that is unambiguous to me. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 at 10:27
    
Incorporated your comment :) –  oerkelens Feb 3 at 10:29

As a long-time birder, I'd reject both in favor of "...yellow patch evident on wings during flight." But I'm guessing you just selected 'birds' as a random "prop" for your usage question.

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Why only during flight? Surely they’re equally evident when the bird is not in flight! –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 at 15:11
    
@JanusBahsJacquet not necessarily. Take a look at the (USA Eastern) Red-winged Blackbird. The red epaulet is far easier to see when the wings are extended. –  Carl Witthoft Feb 3 at 15:13
    
Yes, but that’s not the bird in the image in the question, which appears to be sitting still. I’m no bird expert, but I’m sure there are also birds that have markings that are visible when they’re still, but not in flight. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 at 15:15
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@JanusBahsJacquet ahhh... my apologies, as the helpful IT dep't at my company blocks all sorts of images. I can't see the OP's picture. –  Carl Witthoft Feb 3 at 15:20

“Two yellow spots on its wings”

This is vague, as it could mean two spots on each wing, or two spots in total, on its wings. Replace the word "two" with "three" and it'd be even more confusing: three spots on each, or two on one, one on the other?

“a yellow spot on both wings?”

This is also vague, as it could mean one spot on each wing, or one spot which spans across both wings. However, if you replace the word "a" with "three" on this phrase, it wouldn't be complicated: three spots on both wings quite clearly means three spots on each wing.

In short, the latter phrase is slightly less complicated, but it is recommended to simply say "a yellow spot on each wing".

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I think a patch of coloration large enough to span both wings would be too big to accurately be called a "spot"... the second one is perfectly clear to me. –  ValekHalfHeart Feb 5 at 2:40
    
But what about using the second one to describe a butterfly, for instance? That could easily have one spot spanning across both wings. –  rybo111 Feb 5 at 9:45

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 3 at 20:20

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