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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.

69
votes
6answers
5k views

“Why does paper cut so well?”, ambiguous question?

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 (...
68
votes
9answers
21k 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 ...
66
votes
14answers
13k 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)?
60
votes
11answers
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 ...
52
votes
2answers
122k 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 ...
48
votes
5answers
145k 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 ...
48
votes
4answers
104k views

How to answer a negative question without ambiguity?

I faced a problem to answer a negative question, for example When someone ask you: Don't you have any money? It's a yes/no question but how should one answer the question without ambiguity? When ...
41
votes
4answers
8k 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? (...
41
votes
15answers
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 ...
38
votes
6answers
55k 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 ...
35
votes
2answers
161k 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 ...
33
votes
6answers
207k 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?
31
votes
5answers
6k 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 OK or not OK? If I ...
31
votes
7answers
16k 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?...
28
votes
6answers
27k 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?
27
votes
7answers
218k 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 ...
25
votes
3answers
4k views

When a single use of a word has more than one word-sense (or part of speech) in the same sentence

Consider the sentence: John used to work for the newspaper that you are reading." (source) Newspaper has several well-known senses. The two that occur here are the sense of the newspaper, as a ...
23
votes
4answers
82k 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/...
22
votes
3answers
12k 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?
20
votes
13answers
22k 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 ladder"...
20
votes
8answers
120k 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 : "...
19
votes
10answers
6k 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, ...
19
votes
2answers
4k 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 ...
18
votes
6answers
6k 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 ...
16
votes
4answers
111k 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 ...
14
votes
3answers
14k 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" ...
14
votes
5answers
3k 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 ...
14
votes
3answers
4k 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 -...
14
votes
9answers
22k 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 ...
14
votes
3answers
1k 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 ...
14
votes
4answers
2k 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 ...
14
votes
3answers
828 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, "...
14
votes
3answers
29k 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 ...
13
votes
5answers
3k views

What to call it when someone takes something the most negative possible way

Is there a word for the situation when someone takes something said in the most negative possible way, basically stretching what is said to fit the negative meaning that they desire it to mean. ...
13
votes
4answers
6k views

How can I distinguish “can” & “can't” from pronunciation?

It's very difficult for me to separate them. I was just listening to some video and it said "Fat cells can’t reproduce themselves." What I thought I've heard is "... CAN reproduce ..." Frankly, that'...
13
votes
4answers
21k 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 ...
13
votes
2answers
60k 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 ...
13
votes
3answers
18k 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 ...
12
votes
9answers
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 ...
12
votes
4answers
25k 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 ...
11
votes
10answers
2k views

Understanding the purported ambiguity in “Every boy didn’t run”

I am a com­puter sci­ence pro­fes­sional. I am read­ing the book Nat­u­ral Lan­guage Un­der­stand­ing by James Allen where he writes: “Every boy didn’t run” which is am­bigu­ous be­tween the read­...
11
votes
3answers
4k views

The ambiguity of: “resent your message” [closed]

I am not a native English speaker. Thus I am not sure about the meaning of an email I received. Since the writer is important to me and I depend on his good will, I am afraid to ask him what he wanted ...
11
votes
6answers
18k views

Meaning of “to get stuffed”

What does the phrase to get stuffed mean in the following passage taken from my IELTS reading exercise? One of London Zoo’s recent advertisements caused me some irritation, so patently did it ...
11
votes
4answers
2k views

Ambiguous connotation of “just” - How do natives interpret these?

First of all, these questions are a bit related but not what I'm actually asking about: Is “I just spent all my money” grammatically incorrect? “I just ate them” and “I've just eaten them” - What's ...
11
votes
7answers
6k 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 ...
11
votes
4answers
32k views

What is the correct definition and usage of “for all I know”?

I saw some sentences using this phrase "for all I know" but wasn't quite sure what is its exact definition and also whether a modal verb such as "could, may or might" expressing uncertainty must be ...
11
votes
3answers
1k views

Is “What goes around comes around” African-American?

The famous aphorism, (and a Justin Timberlake's song) what goes around comes around, appears to have originated in the United States. It refers to a completed cycle, and normally carries a negative ...
11
votes
3answers
377 views

notionistic education / teaching?

What's the right word to indicate a type of education based on memorizing facts or a superficial understanding of things, without real insight or critical mind development? In my native language (...
10
votes
6answers
26k views

Meaning of “game of thrones”

What exactly does game of thrones mean? It is being translated into my native language (Czech) as a game in which one might win one of the many thrones, but to me it sounds more like a game in which ...
10
votes
4answers
2k views

What is the difference between “a dash” and “a dollop” of cream?

I was doing this CPE vocabulary test when I came across the following sentence: "If you say you'd like _______ of cream on your strawberries then you don't want very much cream." • a ...