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Consider the following sentence, paying particular attention to how the word "or" functions:

These days, kids begin participating in sports at as young as three years old, among the most popular with boys being football or soccer.

Note that there are two different ways of interpreting that "or".

One is such that only one popular sport is being mentioned, and that "soccer" is merely a synonym for "football". But the other is to indicate that there are two (different) popular sports: (American) football, and soccer (a.k.a. Association football).

We might see both usages deployed in the US, the first where the topic is kids sports in the UK and the second kids sports in the US. (I'm not sure the sentence would ever be used in the UK since "football" and "soccer" are indeed synonyms and the latter word is rarely if ever used.)

My question is:

Is there a (linguistics) name for those two different usages?


NOTE: I am aware that it would not be uncommon to resolve the ambiguity where needed by using something like, "…among the most popular with boys being football (or soccer)." precisely because one cannot infer from the original structure alone which of the two usages is intended. But the form as it stands is fairly common too.

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  • This paper may help you.
    – Centaurus
    Jul 11, 2023 at 21:47
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    The punctuation created the ambiguity, not the single meaning of or. If an American wrote it, a comma clarifies the function of "or" as AKA: football, or soccer. The comma creates the parenthetical. On the web (shortened): "It's the norm for kids to play flag football, soccer, or basketball." That's 3 sports. Jul 11, 2023 at 23:05
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    Soccer is rarely used in the UK nowadays, but I remember it being a fairly common term 50-60 years ago. Jul 12, 2023 at 7:55
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    It's common to use "a.k.a." rather than "or", or to put "or soccer" in parentheses.
    – Barmar
    Jul 12, 2023 at 17:30
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    Linguistics is generally a better place to ask about linguistic terminology.
    – Barmar
    Jul 12, 2023 at 17:31

1 Answer 1

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It's polysemy - the capacity of a word to mean multiple things.

Or as a conjunction has multiple meanings. Two from Merriam-Webster are (under 1):

used as a function word to indicate an alternative

coffee or tea

sink or swim

the equivalent or substitutive character of two words or phrases

lessen or abate

So "or" can be used to link equivalents (where both would apply) or distinct alternatives (where only one would apply) and you have to work out which is intended based on context, tone of voice, etc.

Note: some people have suggested a comma or other pause can disambiguate, but a pause can be used with both meanings: "I want pie, or cake if there's no pie." "I want pie, or what the French call tarte" (where tarte=pie).

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    'Polysemy' is not specific to this case, and has been covered before on ELU. 'That's wicked', 'He's really trying' and 'He's a beast' are equally ambiguities arising from polysemy. Jul 12, 2023 at 9:43

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