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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104 votes
21 answers
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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
71 votes
7 answers
6k views

"Why does paper cut so well?", ambiguous question? [duplicate]

I have posted a question titled "Why does paper cut so well?" (on the Physics stack exchange). After a while, I noticed that over 40 people understood the question as "Why is it so easy to cut paper (...
untreated_paramediensis_karnik'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
69 votes
1 answer
163k 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
68 votes
14 answers
19k 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
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
61 votes
11 answers
10k views

If a ship sinks, what does an airship do?

We were having a discussion at work about airships (zeppelins, blimps, etc.) and someone spoke about them sinking when they crash. Someone else said they can't sink because they're not descending ...
Dan Temple's user avatar
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
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
  • 5,298
51 votes
8 answers
11k views

"She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off." Does she still have all of her fingers?

I am reading a book (Hyperion, by Dan Simmons) and the following phrase left me flabbergasted! She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off. Does it mean that her fingers were ...
Burkhard's user avatar
  • 671
41 votes
4 answers
9k views

"Two yellow spots on its wings" vs "a yellow spot on both wings"

The bird has two yellow spots on its wings. versus The bird has a yellow spot on both wings. Do they mean the same? Which one describes more accurately the yellow spots of the following bird? (...
wyc's user avatar
  • 13.2k
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
40 votes
15 answers
6k views

Two English words to distinguish French words “numéro” and “nombre”

I am French and I am always confused when I have to translate these two French words: “numéro de l'objet” = number of the object = a number used to identify the object “nombre d'objets” = number of ...
oHo's user avatar
  • 555
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
9 answers
14k views

Is “I am getting married with my sister” ambiguous?

I have seen the following sentences in a book given to us during our training period at The Regional Institute of English, Bangalore: I got married to Priscilla. I got married with Priscilla ...
Jvlnarasimharao's user avatar
38 votes
8 answers
425k 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
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
32 votes
5 answers
17k views

Does "pass" mean OK or not OK? [closed]

Today, I received a folder of Recruiting candidate CVs from one of our HR. In this folder, there is a sub-folder named "pass". Question is does this "pass" mean the CVs inside are ...
pootow's user avatar
  • 439
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
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
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
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
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
23 votes
2 answers
18k views

What does Théoden’s quote “Oft evil will shall evil mar” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings mean?

‘Yes, there can be no doubt,“ said Aragorn. ‘At last we know the link between Isengard and Mordor, and how it worked. Much is explained.’      ‘Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses!’...
chris.w.mclean's user avatar
22 votes
3 answers
19k views

What is the origin of "hot" as "good-looking" or "attractive"?

I'm not sure if "hot" as "warm" or "heated" existed before "hot" came to mean "good-looking" or "attractive", but if so, how did this new meaning come to be?
pasawaya's user avatar
  • 885
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
20 votes
11 answers
9k views

Ambiguity of "Dogs must be carried on this escalator"

In the words of the old joke, I wanted to go up to the next floor of a department store, and I saw an escalator with a sign saying Dogs must be carried on this escalator. But I didn't have a dog, so ...
Tim Lymington's user avatar
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
19 votes
2 answers
5k views

"Dial M for Murder" meaning

For me, the title of Alfred Hitchcock's film Dial M for Murder is ambiguous, it may mean either Dial M to order a murder (instead of a pizza) / for a murder to occur (similar to the previous, but ...
se0808's user avatar
  • 457
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
18 votes
8 answers
261k 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
17 votes
5 answers
4k views

Are there any ambiguities created by merging I and J into one letter?

In some Latin alphabet Polybius squares, the I and J are merged into one letter. Normally, this doesn't really create any problems, as I and J are a vowel and a consonant, so there wouldn't really be ...
yonderfork's user avatar
17 votes
4 answers
48k views

What's the difference between "title" and "name"?

I'm not sure when it's appropriate to use word "name", and when to use word "title". For example, "file name" feels right, "file title" doesn't; "document name" and "document title" seem ...
Robert Goldwein's user avatar
17 votes
5 answers
37k views

What’s the difference between “line” and “row”?

I’m not exactly sure under which circumstances is line or row the more suitable term. In Portuguese, they both translate to the same word linha, which can be used for both a drawing line or for an ...
CARLOS LOTH's user avatar
16 votes
4 answers
118k views

What is the difference between "illness" and "disease"?

Are there any differences when those words are used? By whom they are used? Google n-gram All English English fiction: I would guess that "illness" is rather a term which is used in spoken ...
Martin Thoma's user avatar
  • 1,545
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
  • 21.7k
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
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
16 votes
5 answers
70k views

Why do they say "may not" for things which people shouldn't do

I have seen in so many place where they would have mentioned "You may not.." etc for the things people shouldn't do. For eg: in companies where USB is not allowed, they will mention like this "You may ...
Pradeep Simha's user avatar
15 votes
3 answers
6k views

Date as a synonym for anus

In the Song "Ten Foot Cock And A Few Hundred Virgins" Tim Minchin uses the phrase "it's a sin to take it up the date, even if it's great, even with your cowboy mate". I'm not a native English speaker -...
dzebdf's user avatar
  • 153
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
15 votes
8 answers
27k views

Why there are two different meanings for "triweekly"?

Context: I am looking for a term to indicate a time period of 3 weeks/21 days For instance, a "fortnightly" event would occur every 2 weeks/14 days. My Usage: The "Read for the Visually ...
BiscuitBoy's user avatar
  • 13.5k
15 votes
3 answers
1k views

Is this an example of a zeugma?

The following joke is well-known for its ambiguity, with some variation in the animals used: Would you rather a bear ate you or a snake? When the answerer responds something along the lines of, "...
Tuesday's user avatar
  • 919
15 votes
3 answers
26k views

"to not get" vs "not to get"

I came across this sentence in an article, "As she speaks of her family, friends and life, it's difficult to not get that 'feel good' mood." I'm wondering if the following sentence could also mean ...
user60312's user avatar
  • 151
15 votes
3 answers
42k views

"Suspect" versus "Suspicious" as Adjectives

A recent question on this site ("to suspect" vs "to be suspicious of") asks about the difference between "to suspect" and "to be suspicious of." An even more complicated situation ...
Sven Yargs's user avatar
  • 163k
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
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
  • 135k
14 votes
7 answers
9k views

"No head injury is too trivial to ignore"

I was looking at the book Introduction to Mathematical Thinking by Keith Devlin, and came across a question where the reader is asked to reformulate this sentence to avoid the unintended second ...
tanvi's user avatar
  • 375
13 votes
3 answers
37k views

What are "desires of the flesh"?

I am struggling to understand the following sentence. Many Roman emperors were known for their dissolution, indulging in unspeakable desires of the flesh. Does the phrase "desires of the flesh" ...
cr001's user avatar
  • 361
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

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