September 11, 2007

#01-019: Ambiguity: Sentences That Have Two Meanings

hookah-smoking caterpillar from "Alice in Wonderland"
Are these just the legs of a caterpillar, or the features of a man's face?

Note: English is usually a very specific language. For example, we emphasize the differences between general and specific ("a" and "the"), between male and female ("he" and "she"), and between past and present ("talked" and "talk/s"). But some sentences can have more than one meaning. We call these sentences ambiguous.

Get Ready: Can you think of a time when an ambiguous sentence caused some confusion for you or others?

Read the following conversation, and see if you can find three examples of ambiguous statements.

Laverne is a native English speaker. Her co-worker Shirley is an advanced learner of English. They are chatting at lunch.

Laverne: What did you do this weekend?

Shirley: Uh... don't you mean what did I do last weekend? Because this weekend isn't here yet.

Laverne: No, actually, it's OK to call the previous weekend "this weekend."

Shirley: Really? It's so confusing. Anyway, I didn't do anything special last weekend. But next weekend my father is coming to visit.

Laverne: Oh! I'd love to meet him. Please tell me when he gets here.

Shirley: Um... I'm not sure yet. His plans aren't final.

Laverne: No, I don't mean now. I mean "When he has arrived, please tell me."

Shirley: Oh. OK. Anyway, I'm sure he's coming sometime Saturday. So why don't we plan dinner for Sunday at 8 p.m.

Laverne: Great! I can't wait!

Shirley: Why not?

Laverne: Because I'm excited to meet him!

Shirley: But if you're so excited, why can't you wait? You mean if we aren't on time, you'll leave?

Laverne: No! In this case, "I can't wait" means "I'm looking forward" to something.

Shirley: Oh. Well, I can't wait until my English improves!


By the way: These are all real examples that I have seen while teaching English in Asia!


Read more:

Practice: Find two meanings for each of these phrases in the choices below:

  1. this weekend
  2. when she gets here
  3. can't wait

  1. is excited about doing something
  2. the one after now
  3. when she has arrived
  4. the one before now
  5. when she will arrive
  6. will leave if you are late
Now try writing sentences that properly use each of the six meanings.

Explanation of the Answers: After you check your answers in the first comment below, read on for more information on these words.

Laverne uses ambiguous sentences three times, and Shirley is confused by the ambiguity. 

1. First, Shirley is confused by "this weekend." In fact, we can use "this" to indicate something just past, or coming soon. If today is Tuesday and I say "this Sunday," I may be referring to the day before yesterday. One way to be sure is to listen for the verb: "I went shopping this Sunday" is surely past, but "I'm going shopping this Sunday" is just as surely future.

In any case, to be perfectly clear, Laverne could have used "last" and "next," as Shirley did in her answer.

2. The next problem was "Tell me when he gets here." This is commonly understood as Laverne described it: "When he has arrived, please tell me." But Shirley is right: It could mean "Please tell me now when he is expected to arrive." In this context, either could work.  Laverne might have said, "Please call me after he gets here" to be more exact.

3. Finally, "I can't wait." As Laverne explains, this usually means "I'm very excited, so it will be difficult to wait until this happens." Shirley's mistake is a natural one, but kind of funny.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for September 11, 2007

This lesson received 887 visits on my old site between January, 2012, and June, 2021.

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