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The other day I experienced two distinct but similar events. I wanted to convey this to a friend and this is what came to mind: "I was kissed by a girl twice." My question is, does this sentence say, "I was kissed by the same girl twice," or "I was kissed by two different girls on two separate occasions?"

Similarly, what's the proper interpretation of this sentence: "He got hit by a bicycle twice yesterday." (Was he hit by the same bike twice?)

4 Answers 4

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I don't agree with @Alenanno's answer. The sentences you provided are ambiguous and it simply isn't clear at all whether it was the same girl/bike or not.

When I read the sentence "I was kissed by a girl twice", I first though it were 2 separate girls on 2 separate occasions, then I read @Alenanno's answer and thought, "what the ... ?"

Also, in my mind, "He got hit by a bicycle twice yesterday" means he got hit by two different bicycles for the fact of his being an asshole. I don't see how 1 cyclist could cause 2 collisions with 1 person, sort of.

Short answer: The sentences are ambiguous, there's no definitive explanation of what they mean, only how people will perceive them.

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  • If you say "I was kissed by a girl twice." you think it's really ambiguous? "A girl" seems rather clear to me.
    – Alenanno
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:21
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    Yes, it definitely is ambiguous. It's called an indefinite article for a reason.
    – Frantisek
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:22
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    Yes, it's expressed in singular, because there were never more than 1 girl kissing him at a time. No threesome for David, unfortunately.
    – Frantisek
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:25
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    @Alenanno, I will continue with your imaginary conversation: "I was kissed by a girl twice!" -"Oh, how did that happen?" "Well, we played spin the bottle and I was just lucky. First, the bottle pointed to Veronica, later to Kate."
    – Frantisek
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:42
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    @Alennano Let's try using brackets around parts of the sentence. "I was (kissed by a girl) twice" means that the event "kissed by a girl" has happened twice, without any indication as to how many girls. "I was kissed by (a girl) twice" means that the event "kissed by (a girl)" has happened twice - this is specifying the same (a girl) for each event. That's why it's ambiguous.
    – Samthere
    Aug 18, 2011 at 13:38
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How to deal with scope ambiguity is a big topic in computational linguistics. I could write a long answer, but it's been dealt with before on stackoverflow.

To answer the main question: there is no clear-cut, proper interpretation. Without context, it is declared ambiguous.

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  • Refreshingly concise and correct.
    – Fattie
    Aug 18, 2011 at 14:44
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I was kissed twice doesn't say anything about how many girls; I was kissed by two girls says nothing about the number of kisses. I was kissed by a girl twice is ambiguous (probably one girl, possibly two). He got hit by a bicycle twice yesterday is similarly ambiguous, but more likely refers to two separate bicycles, simply because you're more likely to kiss the same girl twice than you are to be hit by the same bike twice.

A girl can refer to any girl, or one girl in particular, and you need to explicitly say which.

Perhaps this is as clear as you can get:

Yesterday I was kissed once each by two [separate] girls.

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  • If the sentence is "I was kissed by a girl twice", it does say how many girls; check my answer.
    – Alenanno
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:19
  • @Alenanno: I maintain that a girl is ambiguous between one girl and any girl, though with a bias toward one.
    – Jon Purdy
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:22
  • read my comment under Rimmer's answer.
    – Alenanno
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:25
  • "kissed once each by two" does not sound right to me - how about Yesterday two girls kissed me once each.
    – mplungjan
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:33
  • @mplungjan: It's the once each that's important. Where it goes is a matter of preference, I guess.
    – Jon Purdy
    Aug 18, 2011 at 23:06
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It is the passive that gets me.

I was kissed twice by a girl—perhaps I was in a room full of kissing people, boys and girls and one girl kissed me twice or two girls kissed me once.

If you turn it around

Yesterday a girl kissed me twice–then I have no doubt it was the same girl doing the kissing

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  • If you have no doubt, then what is the difference between ""I was kissed by a girl twice." and "Yesterday a girl kissed me twice."? The position of the verb? I'm asking because my answer got downvoted for this so I want to see if that's the difference. Thanks. :)
    – Alenanno
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:39
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    Active versus passive. Yesterday I was hit twice by something - ambiguous. Yesterday something hit me twice - only one something (in my opinion)
    – mplungjan
    Aug 18, 2011 at 9:50
  • @mplungjan, although you have a point, I think "Yesterday a policeman gave me a ticket twice." is still ambiguous (and consequently any active phrase, including the ones with girls; I do agree that with active you are more likely to interpret it as the same person, but I think that is largely due to the order of the word and the implied emphasis and that the context still plays a role). Though, I don't have hard references for my opinion.
    – Unreason
    Aug 18, 2011 at 12:09
  • I was ticketed by a policeman twice - could have been two policemen, in your example I would expect only one
    – mplungjan
    Aug 18, 2011 at 13:02

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