I recently heard on the news that:

Paris police have identified the perpetrators.

I realize this is actually ambiguous (unless I am misunderstanding something).

Have the police...

1) ...just recently found out the identities themselves?


2) ...finally announced the long-known identities to the public?

It is unclear, isn't it?

My question is:

How might this news report have been made more clear without sacrificing conciseness?


For those saying that sense #2 is not an option, consider this article here.

  • I may be misremembering, but I don't recall seeing identify used in the second meaning you give, at least not in news articles. I would expect “police have released the identities/names of the perpetrators” for that. I would certainly think it unexpected if they wrote “have identified” and it turned out the intended meaning was that they've released already known names. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 6 '17 at 19:41
  • "have identified" is the Present Perfect tense. "The present perfect consists of a past participle (the third principal part) with "has" or "have." It designates action which began in the past but which continues into the present or the effect of which still continues." owl – MikeJRamsey56 Jun 6 '17 at 19:43
  • Janus - check out this article! It is used in the 2nd sense: dailysabah.com/europe/2017/06/05/… – thomj1332 Jun 6 '17 at 19:44
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    You are right that it is ambiguous. "Identify" might mean that the police have determined the names of the perpetrators, or it might mean that the police have named the perpetrators (or have released the names of the perpetrators). – R Mac Jun 6 '17 at 19:45
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    I think headlines like "Should underage suspects be identified?" and "Oakland Police Won’t Identify Suspects Arrested In Gang Sweep" are pretty good examples of your second usage. – 1006a Jun 6 '17 at 21:33

While I agree it is somewhat ambiguous, I think that, given the context, most people would assume the first meaning -- that the police just figured out whodunnit.

That said, to be completely clear, they could have said either

Paris police have determined the identities of the perpetrators.


Paris police have released the identities of the perpetrators.

I will also note that the first meaning you identified (ha, see what I did there?) is still ambiguous. It could mean either that the police just recently found the perpetrators -- "Hey, here's the guy, hiding behind the trash can" -- or figured out the identity of the persons they had already found -- "We've had this guy sitting in the hoosegow for a week now and only just now figured out his name."

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  • Good point, Roger -- about another level of ambiguity that I missed. It's even trickier than I thought! – thomj1332 Jun 6 '17 at 19:52
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    Good answer. I would just add that headlines are often like optical illusions. – aparente001 Jun 7 '17 at 6:30

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