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Using verbs with multiple meanings

I am not sure if this is Indian English but the verb carry is often used in India to speak of a pregnant woman and often without an object as,

his wife was carrying when he joined the army.

So my first question is, does that sound ambiguous to a native English speaker?

If that doesn't sound ambiguous, I am sure this does.

She was carrying twins and a bulky bag in her hands.

This could mean,

1) She was carrying twins in her hands and a bulky bag.
2) She was pregnant with twins and was carrying a bulky bag in her hands.

In fact, the confusion can arise even without the bulky bag part. So my second question is, is carry a good enough word to talk about a pregnant woman?

Edit: Removed "would one be wise to avoid using it in that sense?" to make the topic more suitable for Q&A format of SE.

marked as duplicate by Robusto, FumbleFingers, MetaEd, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Matt E. Эллен Jan 10 '13 at 19:26

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Yes: carry is used of pregnancy, and this is quite ordinary and understood (with context). See ODO sense 2.

However it's not a good idea to mix carry = pregnant with and carry = transport in the same sentence. You can see ODO has the first as sense 2 and the second as sense 1.

She was carrying twins and a bulky bag in her hands

has only one verb, carrying, and this should normally be in the same sense for both objects. Thus it would normally mean that she was transporting the twins as well as the bag, because she could not be pregnant with the bag.

To split the sense of carry between the two objects would be a pun (syllepsis) if done deliberately.


The OED supports the use of "carry" to mean "pregnant". Your first sentence sounds odd to me as a Canadian because I don't normally hear "carrying", by itself, to mean pregnant; normally I would expect to hear what she was carrying.

The second sentence is ambiguous as you have described. If the context does not make clear where the twins are being carried (in her arms? In an infant carrier? In her uterus?) and you are worried that a reader might get the wrong idea, then it would be best to reword the sentence. I would recommend only using the word "carry" to mean "pregnant" if the context is fully clear.

  • 1
    What you said. Carry is fine to mean pregnant if the context makes it clear that's what it means. For example: "Did you see how big she's getting?" "Yes, I know, but she's carrying twins." would probably be fine; in that context, I wouldn't expect to see a twin on each arm. – J.R. Jan 10 '13 at 13:49

Carry can mean ‘pregnant with’, but it cannot be used intransitively. It has to be something like ‘When I was carrying my son . . .’

The sentence 'She was carrying twins and a bulky bag in her hands' would probably be taken to mean that the lady was heavily laden rather than pregnant. If the writer’s intention was to indicate the latter, that would, as Andrew has said, be an example of syllepsis, in which the function of a verb changes during a sentence. Such a device is normally used for comic effect, as it is several times in ‘Have Some Madeira, M’Dear’ as sung by Donald Flanders and Michael Swann, and from which this is an extract:

When he asked, "What in Heaven?" She made no reply,

Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

  • Any citation for the first sentence ("cannot be used intransitively")? – LarsH Jan 10 '13 at 22:01
  • No, I made it up, but here’s a similar one from Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’: Mrs. Thrale is big, and fancies that she carries a boy. – Barrie England Jan 11 '13 at 7:38
  • Sorry, I meant, any citation for the assertion that carry cannot be used intransitively? – LarsH Jan 11 '13 at 21:00
  • @LarsH. Only the OED itself, which has two citations supporting the definition ‘to be pregnant with’: the one I quoted in my comment and ‘The mother supposed to be now carrying a third child.’ Both use ‘carry’ transitively. This is consistent with my own knowledge of the word’s use. I expect someone will now come up with a counter-example! – Barrie England Jan 11 '13 at 21:06

The first is ambiguous because there are other possible meanings.

The second is not just ambiguous, for the same reason, but also throws a bit of confusion in the mind of the reader by first leaning toward one meaning, then the other.

This confusion would be best avoided in most cases. However, it can be used deliberately as a rhetorical technique called syllepsis. It can be used for humour (often combined with playing with a common metaphor) or just to pull the audience up and make them pay more attention - hence acting as an emphasis.


To me as a native speaker of US English, "carrying" with no explicit object is unclear or misleading. It would be at least as likely to mean "carrying a weapon" (sort of a slang usage) as to mean "with child." To my ear, "carrying" to mean "pregnant" sounds foreign, but could be inferred from the context with some effort.

does that sound ambiguous to a native English speaker?

I can only share my perspective as a US English speaker, but I'm fairly confident about it as such. :-)

  • But it's only ambiguous without additional context, right? In other words, if I said, "She's been carrying her baby for 31 weeks now," wouldn't that be much less ambiguous? – J.R. Jan 10 '13 at 19:33
  • With an explicit direct object, "carrying a baby" sounds more natural to me than just "carrying", but it's still ambiguous (in arms or in womb?). But as you say, with enough context, anything can be disambiguated. – LarsH Jan 10 '13 at 21:59
  • RE: (in the arms or womb?) For 31 weeks?! She's must have huge biceps by now! ;^) – J.R. Jan 10 '13 at 23:33
  • @J.R., I was too terse. "Still ambiguous (in arms or in womb)" refers to "carry" with an explicit DO ("baby") but without further context. With enough context (e.g. "for 31 weeks") it is unambiguous. – LarsH Jan 11 '13 at 21:01