Questions tagged [ambiguity]

This tag is for questions about words or phrases that have multiple meanings and can thus be understood in different ways. If your question is about different words that can be easily mixed up or confused use the tag CONFUSABLES instead.

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54 votes
4 answers
137k views

How to answer a negative question without ambiguity?

I faced a problem to answer a negative question, for example, when someone asks you: Don't you have any money? It's a yes/no question but how should one answer the question without ambiguity? ...
Gigili's user avatar
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16 votes
2 answers
97k views

Controversy over verb choice in "neither you nor I {is/am/are} in control"

I was watching the film A Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law when this line came up, "...neither you nor I is in control..." (I can’t remember the exact words that ended the ...
Mari-Lou A's user avatar
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69 votes
1 answer
162k views

"All but" idiom has two meanings?

Here's two ways I've seen the "all, but" idiom used: "Close all tabs but this one" (Any modern application with a number of tabs might have this as an option.) It means "close all the tabs, but not ...
Carlos's user avatar
  • 5,915
20 votes
4 answers
42k views

Use of "Or", inclusive or exclusive?

My wife and I are playing a game where you roll dice and move so many spaces in a grid "vertically or horizontally". In the use of English it is very common to say, this or the other when it comes ...
Onema's user avatar
  • 303
55 votes
2 answers
256k views

"X times as many as" or "X times more than"

Suppose John has 5 sweets. Is there any difference between the following two sentences? Jack has 3 times as many sweets as John. Jack has 3 times more sweets than John. I prefer the first ...
user avatar
18 votes
8 answers
260k views

Does "until [date]" mean "before that date"?

What does until mean in the following? You need to deliver this product within 2 days (until August 18, 2011) to meet your deadline and get paid. Does this mean that I have to deliver the ...
Chankey Pathak's user avatar
4 votes
2 answers
1k views

Does an adjective or longer modifier apply to both nouns when they are joined with 'and' [or 'or']?

Can you grab the blue shirts and socks? Is the above sentence stipulating that both the shirts and the socks are blue? Or only the shirts? At this stage, I am leaning towards the earlier (only the ...
Chris's user avatar
  • 349
40 votes
5 answers
269k views

What is the difference between "nothing but", "anything but", and "everything but"?

What is the difference between these phrases? When is it valid to use which? Should they be avoided as being ambiguous?
Eli Bendersky's user avatar
13 votes
3 answers
1k views

What’s the long form corresponding to the short form “English Language & Usage”?

Am I right that ①English Lan­guage & Usage is the short form ei­ther for ②English Lan­guage & Its Usage or else for ③English Lan­guage & The Usage of It, rather than for ④English Lan­guage ...
Ben A.'s user avatar
  • 298
3 votes
5 answers
8k views

“Everything is not…”

I keep hearing people say everything is not… which frustrating because it is ambiguous. It could mean either Nothing is… (for the set of all things, no thing is…) or Not everything is… (for ...
Synetech's user avatar
  • 2,323
16 votes
4 answers
3k views

How are pronouns resolved?

Are pronouns in English resolved syntactically or semantically? Do they always refer to the closest matching noun? A wikipedia article has these examples: We gave the bananas to the monkeys ...
user avatar
0 votes
3 answers
49k views

"Within" and "in" when referring to time

I know that both can mean "inside" but what I don't have clear is whether both mean the same when talking about time. For example: The party is in two days = The party is within two days ?? ...
user avatar
1 vote
3 answers
5k views

Ambiguity in prepositional phrases

"Nellie washed the dishes in the sink." This sentence is ambiguous, and the prepositional phrase can be read two ways--either as 'Nellie washed (in the sink) the dishes', in which case it is an ...
Dunsanist's user avatar
  • 679
40 votes
6 answers
75k views

How should I address someone with a known name and unknown gender?

When communicating with foreign cultures, the gender of the addressed person is not always clear from the name. What would be a professional way to address someone in this situation. (Dear Mr or Ms ...
Midhat's user avatar
  • 2,801
38 votes
8 answers
424k views

How should "midnight on..." be interpreted?

From what I understand, the word "midnight" is usually interpreted incorrectly. Midnight is written as "12am" which would imply that it's in the morning. Therefore, it should be at the start of the ...
Damovisa's user avatar
  • 523
16 votes
8 answers
24k views

Ambiguity of "quite"

The adverb "quite" has the following meanings according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: 1: wholly, completely ("not quite finished") 2: to an extreme : positively "quite sure" —often ...
b.roth's user avatar
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15 votes
5 answers
8k views

How should I distinguish between "can" & "can't" in American English pronunciation?

As a non-native speaker, I feel that it is ridiculous that can and can't could sound so similar in American accent. Just now, I was just listening to a video in which the speaker with an American ...
xzhu's user avatar
  • 2,620
14 votes
6 answers
2k views

What is the name of the ambiguity in the phrase "I want to visit clubs with attractive women"?

I want to visit clubs with attractive women. This phrase can be interpreted in two ways: I want to visit clubs myself, but the clubs I visit should have attractive women. I want to take ...
user avatar
7 votes
4 answers
2k views

Ambiguity in Negation: "John did not come because of the rain"

John did not come because of the rain. This sentence seems to allow the following two completely different interpretations. John did not come. And the reason was the rain. John came. But the reason ...
curious-proofreader's user avatar
2 votes
2 answers
605 views

Is there a name for this ambiguity problem or for the construction that solves it?

I read a sentence, John has published research in academic journals of philosophy and law. The author meant John has published research in academic journals of philosophy and in academic journals ...
Hal's user avatar
  • 2,024
104 votes
21 answers
25k views

How to say that food is hot (temperature) without the listener thinking that I mean "spicy"?

There is an excellent discussion of spicy vs. hot at this question. However, having read it, I did not see any answer that tells how to say unambiguously that food is hot (temperature) without being ...
Vivian River's user avatar
  • 1,891
25 votes
4 answers
142k views

"It's all downhill from here"—meaning and etymology

The phrase "it was all downhill from there" seems to have two, contradictory meanings. The first indicates that things have since gotten a lot worse. For example (from http://bleacherreport.com/...
spacetyper's user avatar
  • 2,709
62 votes
5 answers
180k views

Are there any words I can use to disambiguate "biweekly"?

We have two words for events occurring in periods of years - biannual meaning twice a year, and biennial meaning once every two years. However, my colleagues talk about having meetings biweekly. This ...
Lunivore's user avatar
  • 6,915
19 votes
6 answers
12k views

Etymology of "nick" in, in the nick of time?

We have the nick meaning prison, as in "he served time in the nick", then we have the verb to nick, meaning to steal; but if the police catch you red-handed, then "you've been nicked". And if you led ...
Mari-Lou A's user avatar
  • 90.9k
8 votes
3 answers
259 views

Is a dark polka dot necktie dark?

In The Syntactic Phenomena of English, McCawley considers the phrase "a dark blue necktie", and concludes that "blue" in that phrase is simultaneously a noun and an adjective. It modifies the noun ...
Greg Lee's user avatar
  • 17.3k
2 votes
1 answer
2k views

Interpreting the meaning of 'but' as an implication for exclusion/inclusion

I often find it difficult to interpret the meaning of but in some of the sentences where it is used to imply exclusion/inclusion. For example: Drink everything you want but alcohol. Also, sometimes ...
user avatar
2 votes
3 answers
810 views

"Find ten apples and oranges" Do I find 10 or 20? [duplicate]

If I read the sentence Find ten apples and oranges. Do I need to find ten or twenty pieces of fruit?
lmd's user avatar
  • 29
2 votes
1 answer
5k views

Is "in [some period]" different from "within [some period]"?

Q1: "I'll finish this job within 5 days" definitely means the job is expected to cost 5 days or less. However, does "I'll finish this job in 5 days" mean exactly the same? Q2: Can we say, "I'll ...
Jimm Chen's user avatar
  • 339
2 votes
5 answers
1k views

"the same" and "that particular one"

Consider I'm driving the same car. It sounds like me and someone else share one and the same car. But I could mean that my car is just another copy of the same model of the car. How do I express ...
Johannes Schaub - litb's user avatar
24 votes
3 answers
148k views

When is "between" inclusive and when exclusive?

It seems that the exact meaning of between is very tied to its specific usage. What should I assume in a general situation about the inclusivity of between? Consider: "Pick a number between 1 and 10."...
Dávid Natingga's user avatar
7 votes
4 answers
3k views

Arguable ("susceptible to doubt") vs arguable ("susceptible to being supported")

According to dictionary.com, the adjective arguable has two definitions susceptible to debate, challenge, or doubt; questionable: Whether this is the best plan of action or not is arguable. ...
Louis Rhys's user avatar
  • 3,448
6 votes
10 answers
30k views

Usage of "East Indian" to distinguish from "Native American"

I know someone who uses the term "East Indian" to refer to people from India, or whose ancestors are from India, lest they be misunderstood to mean Native American. This struck me as unusual and ...
rob's user avatar
  • 498
3 votes
2 answers
726 views

Antecedent Precedence? (antededent of 'it')

Background: I was working on a project and was having a colleague of mine proof-read a piece of documentation. He said that one sentence was ambiguous because he couldn't determine what the antecedent ...
riqitang's user avatar
  • 133
1 vote
2 answers
2k views

Ambiguous relative clause

In the following expression, whom does 'who' refer to? The friends of the participants or the participants themselves? "The friends of the participants who were told to order soft drinks" This was ...
user avatar
0 votes
4 answers
1k views

"Do not ... and ..." grammar confusion

I recently read this sentence: Do not declare this callback function with a void return type and cast the function pointer to LPTHREAD_START_ROUTINE when creating the thread. and wasn't sure if it ...
Emil's user avatar
  • 103
30 votes
6 answers
34k views

What is the difference between "archetype" and "prototype"?

I'm very confused by the difference between "archetype" and "prototype", and even more baffled when to use which. Can someone clarify?
TCSGrad's user avatar
  • 1,724
26 votes
3 answers
7k views

What do you call a word that has multiple senses or parts of speech in one sentence?

Consider the following sentence. John used to work for the newspaper that you are reading. (It has been collected from here.) "Newspaper" has several well-known senses. Newspaper could ...
Frames Catherine White's user avatar
26 votes
15 answers
32k views

Does a "fact" have to be true?

I'm struggling to decide whether to jettison use of the word fact, because the definition appears to be not solid enough to support continued usage. What do I mean by that? Look at one "meaning ...
Robusto's user avatar
  • 151k
6 votes
3 answers
12k views

The meaning of: "Why don't you just beat it?"

I would like to know what does this phrase means: "Why don't you just beat it?" My dictionary says only that: beat it: get lost Can you beat it? : Do you get it?
Pietro's user avatar
  • 1,387
6 votes
1 answer
1k views

Ambiguity of “not.... because”

You are not hired because you are qualified. I think this means you are hired but it is not because you are qualified. But I think this can also means you are not hired, and the reason for it is ...
shenkwen's user avatar
  • 405
2 votes
3 answers
3k views

Does 'which' refer to the noun immediately preceding it?

Is the 'which' in Proposition 25 suggests a better definition of m-reducibility than given in Definition 23, which is also the one typically given in texts ambiguous? It is a line from an article ...
Quinn Culver's user avatar
2 votes
4 answers
20k views

Difference between "college" and "university"

I have seen the words college and university sometimes mixed in the same article. But there are lots of sources where only one is used. I've looked up them in various dictionaries, but couldn't figure ...
user avatar
1 vote
1 answer
80 views

When ‘that’ follows an 𝒳-of-𝒴 subject, which noun phrase does ‘that’ refer to: the first noun phrase 𝒳 or the second noun phrase 𝒴?

I’ve seen those two quite dif­fer­ent us­ages of that fol­low­ing an 𝒳-of-𝒴 prepo­si­tional phrase con­nect­ing two noun phrases 𝒳 and 𝒴 via the prepo­si­tion of, one in which it is used to re­fer ...
Akari's user avatar
  • 11
1 vote
2 answers
3k views

Appearance or appearances: Ambiguity in meaning?

People care way too much about their appearance/ appearances? Google provides much more evidence for the singular but I have learnt not to trust it. In a formal essay I would opt for the plural since ...
indifeyer's user avatar
70 votes
9 answers
31k views

Why is the word "Holy" used before swear words?

People usually use the word "Holy" before "Shit", "Crap" or any other bad words to express their feelings, like surprise, anger, etc. Is there any reason why the word "Holy" is used with these bad ...
AeJey's user avatar
  • 827
68 votes
14 answers
18k views

How to avoid ambiguity in "I am renting an apartment in New York"?

Does the sentence: I am renting an apartment in New York. imply that I am the landlord or the tenant? How can I unequivocally communicate that I am the tenant (or the landlord)?
Amelio Vazquez-Reina's user avatar
33 votes
7 answers
31k views

How many people are in the sentence "My friend, John, and I went shopping"?

My friend, John, and I went shopping. My friend John and I went shopping. I believe we need to wrap our friend's name in commas (first sentence example), but wouldn't that make it three people?...
RossAlexander's user avatar
22 votes
8 answers
200k views

What is the meaning of the expression "We can table this"?

This came up in an email discussion - we are arguing about the merits and demerits of a certain approach, and I mentioned what I thought was a drawback to a scheme. To that, my colleague replied : "...
TCSGrad's user avatar
  • 1,724
14 votes
5 answers
25k views

When is Christmas Eve Eve?

I have recently seen weather forecasters making predictions for Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Eve Night, and for Christmas Day. One also reads of Christmas Eve Eve, with two eves. Are those all ...
tchrist's user avatar
  • 134k
12 votes
9 answers
3k views

Safer alternative to “opaque”?

As a child I was taught that opaque means doesn't let any light through at all, as opposed to translucent (lets some light through, but diffused/frosted) or transparent (completely clear, lets you see ...
Spiff's user avatar
  • 538