When one says "Do you want a cup of coffee?" he can mean:

  • either an informative question — "Do you feel a desire to a cup of coffee?",
  • or a polite offer — "I can make you a cup of coffee if you want".

What is the general name of this type of ambiguity?

I think it should be either semantic ambiguity or pragmatic ambiguity, however the examples I found for both of these types, for example this one, are unlike the above case.

Better references will be appreciated.

  • 1
    The fact that you are not sure if it's either semantic or pragmatic suggests it is not excluded from being a semantic ambiguity. It could be a pragmatic ambiguity iff it is not a semantic ambiguity, right?
    – Kris
    Jan 20, 2013 at 12:59
  • FYI - your link is no longer working - the allowed views have been maxed out. Jan 20, 2013 at 13:16
  • @Kris this is either semantic, or pragmatic, or another type of ambiguity. Jan 20, 2013 at 13:20
  • 2
    Do you know what time it is?
    – Mitch
    Jan 20, 2013 at 19:47

4 Answers 4


This is an example of Indirectness in illocution. In particular, the question

  • Do you want a cup of coffee?

can be used as an indirect offer, rather than (or perhaps regardless of) its informational request sense. Indirectness is pragmatic. That is, it has to do with illocution.

But it's relative; all language is symbolic, and therefore not direct; some might call it duplicitous, in fact. That is, by contrast with placing a cup of coffee before the addressee, saying anything counts as indirectness. So one must compare the prototype illocutionary force of a construction (usually to assert, to question, or to direct) with its actual effect in context.

There are special conventions for how to do this in English (as in any language). Most of them spring from Grice's Maxims.

  • Aren't Grice's Maxims considered somewhat culturally biased? (towards academic discourse in English)
    – Mitch
    Jan 20, 2013 at 19:46
  • They're not the whole answer; politeness considerations can trump them and they are often violated, frequently in the interests of indirectness. Note the instructions in the problem. Jan 20, 2013 at 19:50
  • The maxim's appeal to me as an engineer, which leads me to mistrust them as good markers for human discourse. Sometimes people just want to talk. Crazy talk, but still. I feel like there are unstated principles from which these maxim's derive.
    – Mitch
    Jan 20, 2013 at 20:27
  • They are Grice's definition of "cooperative communication". Not all communication is cooperative. Jan 20, 2013 at 21:35
  • @John Lawler thank you, this is an exact definition of that phoenomenon. Jan 21, 2013 at 7:43

According to the book you linked to, the answer is that it's not ambiguous.

Do you want a cup of coffee?

That sentence asks a simple question, and will elicit the answer "Yes" or "No", depending on whether the person asked wants one or not. The sentence is not semantically ambiguous.

The book you cite, Foundations of Computational Linguistics, says

A pragmatic ambiguity consists in alternative uses of one meaning relative to a given context ... a pragmatic ambiguity by its very nature cannot be disambiguated by the context.

There is no information in your question about the context of the question, but it seems to me that it should be quite clear from the circumstances of the question whether the speaker is offering to make a coffee or not. Because the question can be disambiguated by the context, it is not pragmatically ambiguous either.

The book itself gives an example of a pragmatically ambiguous utterance: telling someone to "Put the book on the table" when there is a choice of two identical tables. If the correct table cannot be determined from the context, the instruction is pragmatically ambiguous.

  • 1
    Maybe this is not one of these two types, but, there's still ambiguity in this sentence - the intention of the speaker is ambiguous (unless the context makes it clear). Jan 20, 2013 at 13:19
  • 1
    Where's my coffee? Jan 20, 2013 at 15:58
  • @Erel Segal Halevi: There's always ambiguity in words without context. "Do you want a cup of coffee?" - "Yes!" might be followed by "Make me one while you're up!", "Let's go to the coffee-shop, then". Jan 20, 2013 at 18:13

Technically, once the question about coffee desire is asked and accepted as a valid question in the conversation, it's impossible to avoid the first meaning from being conveyed without retracting the question. In contrast, the "offer" meaning can be there, or not. You might prevent it from arising, say, by saying "Sorry, I don't actually have any" or "If so, you can get it yourself", etc. These are all potential additional meanings which presume a desire for coffee. So you might say, the ambiguity is whether or not there is an extra meaning such as the "offer" meaning on top of the basic inquiry about desire for coffee, rather than a simple ambiguity between the simple "desire inquiry" meaning and the "offer" meaning.

  • This makes sense. Now, what is the name of this type of ambiguity? Jan 21, 2013 at 7:41

It's a question of pragmatics, but I wouldn't say there was likely to be much ambiguity about it. The context would usually make it clear which meaning was intended.

  • 2
    Do you have a reference that defines this type of ambiguity? (Certainly, context helps to solve ambiguity, but without context, it still ambiguity...) Jan 20, 2013 at 12:49

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