In describing living creatures English is ambiguous. Even if we leave aside possible figurative meanings, "you are cold" may signify either that you are externally cold when someone touches you-cold in the sense that an inaminate object is cold- or that you feel cold to yourself internally. There appears to be no way to remove the ambiguity short of using an explanatory phrase; "you feel cold" still has two possible literal meanings. As we shall see some other languages are not ambiguous on this point.

Source: Adjectives of temperature by Clifford H Prator, professor of English, University of California

I would like to know whether the sentence "You are cold" is really ambiguous as the professor claims.I do not like or sound to be controversial

  • 1
    I don't know old English, just that it has similarities with modern German. In modern German you have 2 different structures: ich bin kalt I am cold -- externally to the touch. And the dative mir ist kalt which means literally 'to me it is cold' -- I am cold in the sense that I feel cold. (It would be interesting to hear from anyone who does know old English.)
    – S Conroy
    Aug 27, 2019 at 15:00

1 Answer 1


Yes, the English language really is ambiguous in this point. It's clear that the predicate "be cold" has multiple meanings in English, as described in the question: I can say "This plate is cold" to mean that I feel a sensation of cold when I touch the plate (the plate causes people in contact with it to feel a sensation of cold), or I can say "I am cold" to mean that I feel an internal sensation of cold. The structure of the predicate is the same in both cases (a form of "be" + the adjective cold). (Cold also has other meanings, like a metaphorical meaning when applied to interpersonal relationships, or a less subjective meaning related to the scientific definition of temperature.)

The comments below your post seem to be focusing on whether there is a substantial risk of misunderstanding. There isn't (in general), because there isn't much overlap between times when we want to describe an object that is cold to the touch and a person who is experiencing the sensation of cold. But the fact that context or tone of voice can make the meaning clear doesn't mean that this part of the English language is not ambiguous. If it were unambiguous, you wouldn't need context.

  • Both your and nnnnnn's examples sound far more natural than the bald 'you are cold'. Choosing examples needs to be done carefully so that there is nothing to deflect from a focusing on the salient point. "John's in the attic. He's cold ..." followed by (a) "I've just felt his hands" or (b) "he's just said so" bring out the more objective vs subjective readings. (If being truly objective, we would normally say say "His temperature's only 96 degrees" rather than "He's cold"!) Aug 27, 2019 at 14:24
  • @Edwin Ashworth.The professor said that there was no ambiguity when referring to inanimate objects.He categorically said that the adjectives are ambiguous while referring to human beings Aug 27, 2019 at 15:11
  • Jagatha V L Narasimharao But there is a reasonable debate about methodology going on. Nobody is challenging the professor's view, the ideology here, as far as I can see, but we need natural-sounding examples (a simple switch to 'John is cold' removes most of the unnaturalness of a bald 'You're cold' in the 'You are feeling cold' sense. The problem is that pragmatically, for sentient heat-possessors, one of the grammatically allowable readings is favoured over the other. Usually, the Aug 27, 2019 at 15:50
  • subjective "Brrr, I'm cold" sense. And there will always be some subjectiveness in any statement not dependent on the ... use of a thermometer (a digital one) (inserted in exactly the right place in exactly the right manner ...)). Aug 27, 2019 at 15:51

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