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Consider this phrase and context:

"One could do X. One could also do Y, but I wouldn't really recommend it."

(The general "you" instead of "one" could also be used, but I use "one" here for clarity)

There are two interpretations under consideration:

  1. As a native speaker of American English, I'd previously believed that without additional context, the default meaning for most speakers of both dialects is that the speaker doesn't recommend X for anyone.

  2. A colleague suggests that this formulation is sufficient context in British English to indicate that the speaker doesn't recommend X for that specific listener - for example, because of limitations in that listener's capabilities that would make X dangerous for them, but OK for experienced people.

To convey interpretation #2, I would expect that a speaker in either would have to provide a little more context - for example, to explicitly say:

"One could do X. One could also do Y, but I wouldn't really recommend that you do it."

Is interpretation #2 common in British English?

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    With no other context available I would take it to mean that Y is more the one to be avoided. I happen to be British, but I cannot honestly think that interpretation here would depend in any way on what variety of English one spoke. – WS2 Jun 25 '20 at 16:12
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    As WS2. The thing you don't recommend is in the same sentence, not an earlier one. However "One could do X. But one could also do Y, so I wouldn't really recommend it" refers to X. – Weather Vane Jun 25 '20 at 16:41
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    Stereotypically, if a Brit wouldn't really recommend something, he means you shouldn't touch it with a barge pole. Where an American saying exactly the same thing might simply mean something along the lines of It's not ideal (which to a Brit means it's the absolute pits! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 25 '20 at 17:07
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    Firstly your statements are recommending not to do Y. Secondly, you said 'The general "you" instead of "one" could also be used, but I use "one" here for clarity' - when phrased with "one" the recommendation applies to everybody; I definitely wouldn't take it as a recommendation applicable only to the person you're talking to. If you rephrased it with "you could" instead of "one could" then it could be specific to the person you're talking to. – nnnnnn Jun 25 '20 at 22:08
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    I don’t know of any American (except now you) that would assume meaning #1. – Jim Jun 26 '20 at 0:06
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English, in all its forms, is a tonal language, and clues and context are also taken from visual expressions.

As general guidance, if we take “Y’”, as the unemphasised general “you”, and "You” as the emphasised specific/personal “you”, then we have:

  1. "Y’ could do X. Y’ could also do Y, but I wouldn't really recommend it." - (General advice recommending X)

  2. "Y’ could do X. You could also do Y, but I wouldn't really recommend it." - (General advice followed by specific advice speaking against using the special skill at Y)

  3. "You could do X. Y’ could also do Y, but I wouldn't really recommend it." (Almost a suggestion that "You" do X and dismissing Y.)

  4. "You could do X. You could also do Y, but I wouldn't really recommend it."

I suspect that it would also make a difference if the speaker thought that the listener were going to do the job or have it done by someone else.

The upshot of this is that the construction is heavily dependent on more than a form or words.

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    Tone definitely matters, but English isn't a "tonal language" in the normal sense of that term, which is used for languages such as Mandarin where each syllable has an inherent pitch contour such that changing the tone can result in a completely unrelated word. – nnnnnn Jun 26 '20 at 2:55
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The two interpretations of the phrase 'I wouldn't recommend it' that are outlined in the question, upon analysis, turn out not to be as different as the question assumes. That is equally true in British and in American English.

Suppose, for a moment, that (1) is the correct interpretation. What does it mean that the speaker wouldn't recommend it to anyone? Chances are that, upon analysis, it will almost always turn that the recommendation depends on some assumptions, understood from the context, about the circumstances that the person spoken to is in. If all these assumptions were to be made explicit, we would see that 'I wouldn't recommend it to anyone' really amounts to 'I wouldn't recommend it to anyone in circumstances A, B, C'. Of course, in real-life communication, the circumstances are not all explicitly listed, which means that there will sometimes be room for interpretation as to what precisely the (non)recommendation is. What is listed in the question as interpretation (1) is thus not a single, precise interpretation; it is something that is subject to further interpretation.

Now it may sometimes be that the circumstances that the speaker had in mind were the precise circumstances of the person receiving the advice, which very few other people are in. If that is the case, then (1) is not really different from (2).

What this shows is that (2) is a special case of (1). When we hear 'I wouldn't recommend it', the question should not be whether to interpret it as (1) or (2), but what are the circumstances on which the (non)recommendation is based.

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