Are there any English verbs that are ambiguous with regard to their thematic roles, although they are the same on the surface?

To clarify, in John worries Mary, John causes the worries, but in John worries about Mary, John experiences the worries. I'd like to know whether there are also verbs that show the same pattern, but without a change in surface structure (the addition of about in this case). It's not necessary that one of the senses is causative.

One example I've found is speak to, but it doesn't work well in the sense of appeal to when the subject is a person, instead of, say, a painting.

  • 2
    Unclear what you want or why. Jan 27, 2017 at 17:01
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    I think a fruitful field to explore will be contronyms. When "Mary dusted it", did he add dust or remove it? What if Mary is a forensic investigator, looking for fingerprints? How about a maid, cleaning the den? A baker, putting the finishing touches on a cake?
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 27, 2017 at 17:03
  • In my language, we have different verbs for making someone see something, and something that allows itself to be seen. In English, the most common word for both of these is show. "I show". Do I show up, or am I displaying something? Admittedly, the inclusion of an object does serve to remove ambiguity.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jan 27, 2017 at 17:11
  • Check the children's series of Amelia Bedilia -- ameliabedeliabooks.com -- each book has three such novelty words that cause confusion. Ice the fish means to chill the fish on ice, but Amelia adds a sweet icing onto the fish, like icing a cake. She does, in fact, sprinkle dust on the furniture "as directed" and sketch the draperies per "draw the curtains at daylight." Jan 27, 2017 at 17:41
  • @YosefBaskin None of those example change the thematic relation though, "Amelia" remains the agent, and the fish/furniture/curtains remain the theme. Jan 27, 2017 at 22:35

2 Answers 2


I think you're talking about patientive ambitransitives. According to Wikipedia:

Patientive (S = O) ambitransitives are those where the single argument of the intransitive (S) corresponds to the object (O) of the transitive. For example, in the sentence John (S) tripped and John (A) tripped Mary (O), John is not the person doing the falling in both sentences.

Most of the time, ambiguity is resolved by the end of the sentence:

  • The bat broke.
  • The bat broke the window.

However, it is possible to make a really bad sentence that has ambiguity. Here's an example:

  • John looks like he's trying to find something.
    • John looks under the rug, like he's trying to find something.
    • John seems like he's trying to find something

I would, however, say that a comma is required (after "looks") if you want the first interpretation. If spoken, there should be a pause there.

  • +1. How the heck did you do that?! Great answer.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jan 27, 2017 at 20:43

I can suggest one such ambiguous sentence, taken from Simon Fraser University linguistics professor DeArmond's page on instruments.

John felt cold.

This can mean one of two things:

  1. That John is in a cold environment, and feels too cold, he doesn't have a warm enough coat. This makes him an experiencer and the cold is a state.

  2. That John feels cold to another person's touch. DeArmond suggests that he is dead and the mortician feels that he is cold to the touch. This makes John a theme.

I am not an expert on thematic relations, but I would suggest another ambiguous sentence, but I'm open to feedback on my assignment of roles:

Mary shot the gun.

Here, Mary could have:

  • Shot a gun at an unspecified third person; or
  • Used a gun to shoot another gun.

The first reading suggests the gun is a theme and the second that it is an instrument.

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