In the following dialogue:

Q: How much of a problem is A when using method B?

A: For method B, A should be taken care of.

Is the answer ambiguous? Are these interpretations both valid?

Interpretation 1: Method B automatically takes care of A, don't worry about it.

Interpretation 2: You should take care of A before applying method B.

  • Can't leave out the should part: "method B is likely to automatically take care of A. Apr 20, 2022 at 14:07
  • 2
    There are lots of meanings of should and this partly relates to their ambiguity. There's even ambiguity in something like "It should arrive at 10 pm" - is that an order or a statement of a (probable) fact?
    – Stuart F
    Apr 20, 2022 at 14:30
  • The likelihood of either interpretation will depend on the context and on what A and B are; it is very difficult to say which interpretation would be more likely in the abstract. You already know that the formulation is ambiguous, and can presumably infer that it would be best to avoid it, as there are many ways of expressing either possibility unambiguously. So, what precisely are you trying to accomplish by asking this question?
    – jsw29
    Apr 20, 2022 at 15:28
  • I thought this was an ambiguous sentence, but somebody else suggested that to a native speaker it might not be. I wanted to confirm that both interpretations are reasonable and one isn't much more likely to be true than the other.
    – CFS
    Apr 20, 2022 at 17:07
  • 1
    This is yet another case in which the posted, 'official' reason for closing is misleading. It may be a matter of opinion how to interpret this formulation in a particular case, but it is not a matter of opinion that it is ambiguous. That is, however, fairly obvious, so the question should be transferred to the ELL site.
    – jsw29
    Apr 21, 2022 at 14:53

1 Answer 1


That's the nature of the passive - the agent is not the focus and can even be left out. In your example, if it is important to know whether the agent is the method or the person using the method, the agent should be explicitly identified.

To answer your question explicitly - the identity of the agent is ambiguous in your passive construction. Note, though, that the passive voice does not prohibit mentioning the agent ("by you / by the method").

  • Part of the story, but OP does specify the use of 'should'. Modalities have been covered before. Apr 21, 2022 at 16:36
  • 1
    If "should" didn't have different meanings, maybe the sentence wouldn't have been ambiguous, but I think this reply is also correct because if the agent had been specified, certainly it wouldn't have been ambiguous.
    – CFS
    Apr 21, 2022 at 19:10

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