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Thursday, January 5, 2012



Do you know what "ambiguous" and "ambiguity" mean? Look them up if you don't.


Find three examples of ambiguous statements in this conversation.

Laverne is a native English speaker. Her co-worker Shirley is an advanced learner. 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!


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. These sentences are called ambiguous.

Here are the three problems from the dialogue above:

  1. "this weekend": 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. Anyway, to be perfectly clear, Laverne could have used "last" and "next," as Shirley did in her answer.
  2. "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. "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.


Read the following conversation. Fill in the blanks TWO DIFFERENT WAYS. Be sure to use the correct forms.

My best friend called me ___(1)___ Monday (today is Wednesday) and said she was coming to visit. ____(2)____! We have been friends for years, but I haven't seen her since ____(3)____ summer (it's October now). I know she's coming ____(4)____ Christmas, but she didn't say exactly when. She'll call again and ____(5)____.


1. Have you every had a problem with ambiguity? Tell about it.
2. Have you ever had a problem with the words in the conversation above? Tell about that.
3. Make a dialogue about an ambiguous sentence. Practice it with a friend.


1. this OR last
2. I can't wait OR I'm very excited to see her, I'm looking forward to her visit, etc.
3. this OR last
4. this OR next
5. tell me when she gets here OR tell me when she has arrived

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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