I was reading this sentence and thought it ambiguous:

The trees must have grown since he died because they were no longer young when I first saw them.

This could mean:

1) The trees were already old when I first saw them.

2) The trees were not as young as when I first saw them.

Option 1 seems to be obviously grammatically correct one. The reason I thought option 2 might be correct is because of the logical coherence between the two causes connected by "because"--the trees have grown because they were young last time but they are not young at the moment, hence the grown.

This might seem a rather minute question, but I would really appreciate your clarification. Thanks!

  • 4
    I think there would have to be an "as" before "when" in order to support interpretation #2. Without it, I can only conclude that the death referred to was so long ago that the trees grew from seedling to full maturity since, and the speaker is revisiting a place that he or she has not seen since shortly before the death. Jul 1, 2014 at 17:16
  • The sentence strikes me as odd. “[T]hey were no longer X” seems to mean “they were not X any more”, i.e., a comparison to an earlier state (at an earlier time), and the speaker shouldn’t be able to make that observation “when I first saw them” because he has no frame of reference for such a comparison.
    – Scott
    Jul 2, 2014 at 20:22

1 Answer 1


There is no ambiguity. The trees were no longer young, this means they were old at the time of observation. The word 'as' would need to be present for your second interpretation to fit. I certainly think it's pretty silly to word it in a way that describes their current state relative to a previous state when this is clearly the first time they're being observed by the speaker...but I don't think that amounts to ambiguity.

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