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English is not my first language. I found the following sentence:

It is not having fear that is the problem.

Am I right thinking that it is ambiguous? I can think of the following different meanings:

  1. "It is not having fear that is the problem." -> The lack of fear is the problem.

  2. "It is not having fear that is the problem." -> The lack of fear is not the problem.

  3. "It is not having fear that is the problem." -> The subject "it" is something that is different from "having fear that is the problem", where "that" refers to something else.

  4. "It is not having fear that is the problem." -> The subject "it" is something that is equal to "not having fear that is the problem", where "that" refers to something else.

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  • I would describe option two as "being afraid (that is, the possession of fear) is not the problem." – phoog Sep 1 '20 at 15:28
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    You need more context, and punctuation, for senses (3) and (4), and I'm not sure (4) will ever be idiomatic. Certainly senses (1) It is [not having fear] that is the problem. and (2) It isn't [having fear] that is the problem. are ambiguous before my marking, needing some prior / situational context. (3) needs say "It is not having fear: that {pointing} is the problem!" but sounds stilted. (4) needs separate sentences (or even paragraphs). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 1 '20 at 15:37
  • I agree with Edwin Ashworth. I would add that, to me, the problem lies in the difference between the spoken and written languages. In spoken English, the emphasis would resolve the ambiguity. In written English, restructuring is required. The impersonal form is not always suitable. – Greybeard Sep 2 '20 at 10:02
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Yes, with no context, it is ambiguous. However, if options 3 or 4 are intended then one would expect quotation marks setting off the phrases that you italicized in the question (or indeed italic type). Furthermore, in the second case I would expect something further describing the actual problem, most likely an additional phrase starting with but.

Therefore, even in the absence of context, the ambiguity can be resolved in favor of the first option with a fairly high probability, with a small possiblity of the second option.

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