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Is there a single adjective to describe something that causes one to feel ambivalence? For example, in the context of the exchange below, is there a single-word response Bob could give that would express the same idea?

Alice: How was Eve's new play?

Bob: I'm ambivalent towards it.

I thought it might be correct to simply describe the play itself as "ambivalent," but after consulting several online dictionaries this seems not to be the case.


Curate's Egg, introduced by FumbleFingers in the comments, is more or less the idea I'm trying to express - simultaneously bad and good. I would still prefer a single adjective if possible.

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    There's a huge difference between "I think X is ambivalent" and "I am ambivalent about what I think of X". If X is in fact intended to induce ambivalent reactions (separately, within each observer), it might perhaps be thought-provoking, but I think the concept itself is a bit vague, and probably can't be pinned down by a single term distinct from, say, polarising (induces different reactions in different observers). – FumbleFingers Jul 31 '14 at 16:03
  • @FumbleFingers I'm actually after a third category. X is intended to be entirely positive, but likely to induce ambivalent reactions separately within each observer. To continue the play example, "That sucked, but at least it wasn't boring." – Dan Jul 31 '14 at 16:09
  • @ Dan: Perhaps I shouldn't have introduced the word intended. Forgetting about such irrelevancies, there are only two possible referents for ambivalent - the observer (the reaction) or the thing observed (the stimulus). You can have a very definite reaction to an ambivalent statement, or an ambivalent reaction to a definite statement (or, of course, neither or both might be "ambivalent"). – FumbleFingers Jul 31 '14 at 16:14
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    If you're not dead set on a single-word adjective, you might want to consider "curate's egg" (good in parts). – FumbleFingers Jul 31 '14 at 16:17
  • Polarising has a deeper sense and carries more implication than ambivalence. There is a colloquial expression that some people use, which I don't happen to like very much, but could well be a possible answer for Bob, namely 'so-so'. – WS2 Jul 31 '14 at 16:17
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Hmm, I just learned I didn't know the exact definition of ambivalence. From your wiktionary link (which seems to split the difference between the other two):

Simultaneously experiencing or expressing opposing or contradictory feelings, beliefs, or motivations.
Alternately having one opinion or feeling, and then the opposite.

So it sounds like you want a word that describes a thing (the play) as provoking a mixed reaction in a person who observes or considers it (Bob).

If the play is unclear or disorganized, such as having good parts and bad parts, or leaves the plot unresolved in some way, you could say it was confusing. Synonyms include puzzling, complex, perplexing, befuddling, baffling, mystifying and unsettling.

If the play is intended to evoke different emotions, you could call it bittersweet, if the emotions are both painful and pleasant. There may be other words for different compound emotions that I can't think of off the top of my head.

Riffing on your comment, if the play was simply poorly executed at reaching its end goal or telling its supposed moral, you could say it was contradictory. Synonyms with various flavors for this include contrary, inconsistent, inconclusive, off-message (or off-topic), and paradoxical.

If the play specifically bounced around between different extremes or messages, you could say it was vacillating, clashing or wavering.

I'm not sure there is a single specific word that describes a piece of entertainment or media as poor quality without also implying that it was uninteresting. There are plenty of ways to describe the play as neither good nor bad, but it sounds like you're looking for a specific manner of good and bad combined into a single word.

  • A word I would use to address the meaning you describe in your last few paragraphs is uneven. – Scott Jul 31 '14 at 19:51
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The word your looking for is mixed, which adequately states that you have multiple opinions on the matter.

Alice: How was Eve's new play?

Bob: It was mixed.

Alice: Oh?

Bob: The acting was great but the stage effects were awful.

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No, I don't think there can be, because it's you that's ambivalent, based on your feelings towards the subject. These may be different from others' feelings towards it. The subject didn't "cause" you to feel that way.

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conceivably "desultory" is what you are after.

(Questions this confusing and vague should just be closed - no offence!)

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This is very short, but I've been hearing this from younger acquaintances and friends these days, and I believe it fits.

"Meh!"

  • ''"Meh"'' describes apathy. I care deeply about this particular stimulus, but it is both good and awful. – Dan Jul 31 '14 at 16:40
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Torn is a word that simultaneously expresses very strong emotions in opposite directions. Based on the recent edits to this question, this seems to be the single word you're looking for, so I'm moving it up to the top. Previously I said it was probably the best literary word but had it second.

I still think that in polite conversation the most commonly used word I hear to mean ambivalent is interesting. Although it's not a dictionary definition as far as I know, use of interesting in this sense shows that a person is not ambivalent and has some positive and some negative reactions but that he did not reach any overall decision as to strongly liking or not liking the subject.

Alice: How was Eve's new play?

Bob: Interesting.

It's a polite way of saying that some parts were enjoyed but others not so much. Overall, the experience was neigher extremely enjoyed or extremely unenjoyed, but somewhere in the middle in a place that was "interesting".

Other words are: thought-provoking (which is just another take on interesting), vacillating, undecided

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