Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

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Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

1. Dōngtiān: néng chuān duōshǎo chuān duōshǎo; xiàtiān: néng chuān duō shǎo chuān duō shǎo. 冬天:能穿多少穿多少; 夏天:能穿多少穿多少. (In winter wear as much as you can; in summer wear as little as you can.)

2. Shèngnǚ chǎnshēng de yuányīn yǒu liǎng gè, yī shì shuí dōu kàn bù shàng, èr shì shuí dōu kàn bù shàng. 剩女产生的原因有两个,一是谁都看不上,二是谁都看不上. (There are two reasons that bring about "leftover women" [i.e., unmarried women]:  one is that everybody looks down on them; the other is that they look down on everybody.)

3. Dìtiě lǐ tīng dào yīgè nǚhái dàgài shì gěi nán péngyǒu dǎ diànhuà, “wǒ yǐjīng dào Xizhímén le, nǐ kuài chūlái wǎng dìtiě zhàn zǒu. Rúguǒ nǐ dàole, wǒ hái méi dào, nǐ jiù děngzhe ba. Rúguǒ wǒ dàole, nǐ hái méi dào, nǐ jiù děngzhe ba.” 地铁里听到一个女孩大概是给男朋友打电话,“我已经到西直门了,你快出来往地铁站走。如果你到了,我还没到,你就等着吧。如果我到了,你还没到,你就等着吧." (I heard a girl on the subway who was probably talking to her boyfriend:  "I'm already at Xizhimen.  You hurry over to the subway station.  If you get there first and I haven't yet arrived, then you wait for me.  If I get there first but you haven't yet arrived, then just you wait!)

4. Dānshēn rén de láiyóu:  yuánlái shì xǐhuan yīgè rén, xiànzài shì xǐhuan yīgè rén. 单身人的来由:原来是喜欢一个人,现在是喜欢一个人. (The reason why there are single people is that they used to like someone [else], but now they like to be by themself.)

5. Liǎng zhǒng rén róngyì bèi shuǎi: yī zhǒng bù zhīdào shénme jiàozuò ài, yī zhǒng bù zhīdào shénme jiào zuòài. 两种人容易被甩:一种不知道什么叫做爱,一种不知道什么叫做爱. (There are two types of people who are easily cast aside:  one are those who don't know what love is, the other are those who don't know how to make love.)

6. Xiǎng hé mǒu gè rén zài yīqǐ de liǎng zhǒng yuányīn:  yī zhǒng shì xǐhuanshàng rénjiā, lìng yī zhǒng shì xǐhuan shàng rénjiā. 想和某个人在一起的两种原因:一种是喜欢上人家,另一种是喜欢上人家. (There are two reasons why somebody might want to be with a certain person:  one is that they've taken a liking to that person, the other is that they like to make it with that person.)

7. Nǚhái yuē de nánhái chídàole yǒu liǎng gè yuányīn: a. shuì guòle b. shuìguòle 女孩约的男孩迟到了有两个原因:  a. 睡过了. b. 睡过了.  (There are two reasons why a boy is late for his date with a girl:  a. he overslept  b. he already slept [with somebody else].)

By the way, I don't believe for a minute that these sentences are part of an actual exam for foreign students, but they sure are clever.

[Sentences from Anne Henochowicz, via Facebook; thanks to Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 12:20 am

    These strike me (like many ambiguous sentences in written English, such as those on this Wikipedia list) as byproducts of the choices a writing system makes in what information to preserve and what to leave out. If the writing system preserved complete information about stress and timing, the ambiguity would be lost. Read aloud, wouldn't they all be pronounced differently? If so, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that each pair represents transcriptions of two different sentences in Mandarin that happen to take the same form in writing? The differences in word spacing in the pinyin version reflects some of these disparities, but doesn't capture some of the variation in stress.
    Counterargument to the above: if native speakers, especially non-literate ones, recognize these pairs as "the same sentence" when presented orally, shouldn't we consider them to be so?

  2. unekdoud said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 12:32 am

    I would expect that if we did one of those blinded listening experiments with native speakers reading some of these examples, the readings for the different meanings would either turn out to be statistically indistinguishable or require extreme changes to the usual word timing to be unambiguous.

  3. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 1:28 am

    @ Bruce Rusk

    Your point about writing systems is a good one, but note that an orthography can also add information that is not clear from the spoken sentence.

    For these particular example pairs, I would expect the sets of permissible prosodic renderings for each reading to overlap so much that it'll be hard to distinguish them. Of course in practice pragmatics/context will favor one interpretation.

    That stated, for some of the examples there is a neutral-tone difference. For example the 上 in 喜欢上 would vary between a neutral and a full tone for the two readings: 上 as a resultative suffix (for the "taken a liking to" reading) has a neutral tone in MSM, while 上 as a full verb has a fourth tone.

  4. deng said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 2:42 am

    Interesting. In number 3, I read the second "你就等着吧" as a threat from the girl ("just you wait…"). Also, in number 7 I interpreted "b. 睡过了" as "He already slept with her [the girl on the date] (and doesn't care about impressing her anymore.)" Ambiguous, indeed!

    [VHM: I changed the first one, for which I originally had "...then you wait for me [to come find you]." Still, I think that all three interpretations are possible for both number 3 and number 7, though your suggestions are better than mine for the second interpretation of each. My second interpretations, which I've now bumped down to third interpretations, are not so natural as yours.]

  5. François Demay said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    An example in French is :

    Le roi dit Voltaire est bête.
    You can put the punctuation in two different ways.

    Le roi dit : Voltaire est bête.
    Le roi, dit Voltaire, est bête.
    (but in the second reading, beware the "lettre de cachet"…)


  6. Mara K said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 8:54 am

    In that vein, the famous English example:

    Woman without her man is nothing.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    In 东方红 "the east is red", what's the case for 红 being a verb? I know in Latin "rubet" is a verb meaning "3sg is red", and there's a separate adjective (ruber) meaning "red", and it's trivial to tell them apart because of their radically different morphology. Red getting a verb is something of a coincidence; for "beautiful" (pulcher), there's only the adjective.

    I've seen chinese grammars call 形容词 adjectives, and I've seen other chinese grammars claim that chinese doesn't have adjectives at all, and that instead they're all stative verbs. I've adopted the philosophy that they're adjectives, but that's just facile reasoning based on the chinese term ("describing words"). I'd love to see an actual discussion of why they might be considered adjectives or verbs… is there something about the 红 in 东方红 that isn't possible for an adjective?

    I've seen claims along the lines of "形容词 must be verbs, because in a sentence like 这个很大 there would otherwise be no verb", but I don't see the problem with that; I understand (though without personal knowledge) that that is the norm in Russian, where distinguishing adjectives from verbs is easy.

  8. julie lee said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    The 3rd sentence with the ambiguity in
    ni jiu dengzhe ba 你就等着吧 ("then you wait for me" or "then just you wait!)

    can also be expressed ambiguously in English:
    (if you arrive first) "then just wait!" and (if you keep me waiting) "then just wait!" (meaning "Just you wait!")

  9. julie lee said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    The 4th Chinese sentence might be rendered literally in ambiguous English as:
    "The reason why there are single persons is because while they once loved the single person [that single loved one], now they love the single person [be by themselves].

    This recalls one of my favorite sayings in English that plays on ambiguity:
    " Capitalism is distinguished by man's inhumanity to man; in communism, it's the reverse."
    Or "in capitalism, man eats man (or dog eats dog); in communism, it's the reverse."

  10. JS said,

    January 24, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    @Bruce Rusk, etc.
    (2) is the one example where I don't see how any prosodic (or other non-pragmatic) factor could distinguish the two meanings — dou and other quantifiers compel this arrangement, whether the preceding noun happens to be syntactic S, O or what have you.

  11. hanmeng said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 6:47 am

    @Michael Watts,

    For anglophones learning Chinese, I sometimes think it might be useful to think of 形容词 as stative verbs rather than adjectives, because going from an English sentence where the adj. is preceded by some conjugation of "to be", the learner tends to use 是 shì, resulting in a Chinese version of the utterance that is either unnatural or with a different emphasis. So, my idea is if they think of the Chinese version of the utterance as having a stative verb rather than an adjective, they won't do that.

    Or maybe it makes little difference since most language learners don't process language so theoretically and actually just translate word for word and use 是 inappropriately anyway. And students who try to figure out what a "stative verb" is without reference to Chinese are just going to confuse themselves.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 9:31 am

    @Michael Watts, @hanmeng

    My wife, who was a superb teacher of Mandarin, always used the concept of "stative verb" with her students, and — after a few months with her — they never said such things as *东方是红. Other teachers call them "adjectival verbs", and that works too, but probably less well, since it keeps alive in the student's mind that this is some kind of adjective.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    From Brian Spooner:


    Thanks for letting me know about this. I was just reading your language log post about ambiguities, and wondered whether this, and also the incidence of homophones, might not be something that needs to be approached comparatively from two points of view: (a) the spokent language, (b) the written language. Do we often have ambiguities and homophones in the one that are resolved in the other (certainly each with English spelling? Although the written language is losing its historical value as the standard correct form in languages that have a long tradition of literacy, we continue to rely on it for oral interaction in many ways. One wonders how people would communicate in the future if (e.g.) written English ceased to be the standard form of the language for all English speakers.


    My reply:


    These are profoundly good questions. Because of the homophone issue and the lack of strong grammaticality that I pointed out earlier, we do get a lot of ambiguity, both in spoken and in written Mandarin. What's interesting is that the types of ambiguity in spoken and in written Chinese vary somewhat and they occur for different reasons. I won't spell these out here and now — perhaps other readers may wish to do so, and some of them will undoubtedly emerge in futre Language Log posts.

    The main point I want to make here is that a good, careful speaker or writer of Mandarin can avoid ambiguity if they wish to do so and are conscious of what they are intending to communicate. On the other hand, if they are intent on being ambiguous because they want to be humorous or for some other reason (they want to be deliberately misleading or catch their interlocutor in a cleverly designed argument), they can write and speak the kinds of sentences that are featured in this post.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    I don't like the idea of telling students a convenient lie just because they happen to speak English. Do Russian speakers get taught that 形容词 are adjectives at the same time English speakers get told they're verbs? Why not use the categories Chinese use (even more so if you're posting about syntax to a linguistics blog)? And 是 and 喜欢 are both uncontroversially stative verbs, and they behave nothing like 形容词. And indeed I see that my ABC dictionary classifies both as 动词.

    In a construction like 东方红, is 红 acting in any way that would be inappropriate for a 形容词? Is there any reason to believe it's been derived into a verb? (Such as how if I said "It's time to red", "red" would have to be a verb.)

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    @Michael Watts

    "And 是 and 喜欢 are both uncontroversially stative verbs…"

    Whether you meant "uncontroversially" or "incontrovertibly", they are not stative verbs. The first, shì 是, is an equational verb or copula (my wife called it "verb 'be'") and the second, xǐhuan 喜欢 ("to like") is a transitive verb (it takes an object).

    "…my ABC dictionary classifies both as 动词."

    I should hope so! They ARE verbs, but not stative verbs. I am the founder and one of the associate editors of the ABC Chinese dictionaries, so I'd be unhappy if we called them stative verbs.

    Chinese grammar is still being worked out. There are widely differing systems that have been proposed, and so far no standard has been arrived at. Some Chinese linguists are quite willing to follow the categories that are used for other languages, but some, more nativist, scholars are trying to develop grammatical systems unique to Chinese. They have not reached a consensus.

    Here's a sketch of Chinese grammar in English:

    Cf. this Chinese sketch:

    Speaking of verbs, check out this poem:

  16. Yosemite Semite said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    Number 3 reminds me of a phrase my grandfather used to wryly chaff my young self with: "If you get there first, make a blue mark. If I get there first, I'll rub it out." (1950s, West Coast US, English ancestry by way of Canada.)

  17. Michael Watts said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 10:32 pm

    You link me to wikipedia to describe what stative verbs are, but I see support for the claim that 是 and 喜欢 ("be" and "like") are stative verbs. It says "A stative verb is one that describes a state of being, in contrast to a dynamic verb which describes an action [...] stative verbs are static or unchanging throughout their entire duration, whereas dynamic verbs describe a process that changes over time". It goes on to say that the verb in the English sentence "he plays the piano" may be stative (the natural reading for me), and obviously it's also transitive.

    The following verbs are stative:

    I _am_ an American. (copula)
    I _like_ spicy food. (transitive)
    I _know_ how to change a tire. (?)
    She _knows_ the alphabet. (transitive)
    I _sing_ in the shower. (intransitive)
    I _sing_ rock and roll in the shower. (transitive)
    He mostly _paints_ still lifes. (transitive)

    And this isn't some completely arbitrary classification; stative vs. dynamic verbs in English generally have different interactions with simple present finite forms ("I know the alphabet" vs. "I am knowing the alphabet"). Using a normally dynamic verb in a simple present form generally coerces it to a stative reading, which is how I understand "he plays the piano" and "I sing in the shower" – both can be true even if the described conduct is not currently happening, as long as they're accurate descriptions of the subject.

    So wikipedia says that whether a verb is stative is determined by its semantics, and SIL ( ) agrees ("a stative verb is a verb that expresses a state of affairs or being rather than action"). I conclude that, since "like" is definitely a stative verb in "I like spicy food", 喜欢 must be a stative verb in 我喜欢吃辣的, as (as far as I can see) the semantics are identical; the sentence is a description of me, and doesn't refer to anything I happen to be doing.

    So while 是 and 喜欢 are not "stative verbs" in the sense of being syntactically 形容词, they are stative verbs in the sense that they are verbs and they are stative. That's part of why I like calling 形容词 "adjectives".

    I don't have any particular nationalistic attachment to using "native categories!" for Chinese grammar, but I do think that a treatment of Chinese grammar should make sense purely in terms of Chinese. The vast majority of people who successfully internalize Chinese grammar have never spoken English (at the time of learning). It doesn't make sense to me to define Chinese grammar in reference to what would or wouldn't surprise English speakers.

  18. JS said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 11:09 pm

    The term stative verb has grown in popularity in naming the Chinese category in question, though some do reject it on Michael Watts' grounds: this term is used in application to other languages to refer to verbs conveying states of being rather than actions, like English like and be, and thus indeed, if it were to be used consistently in the Chinese case, would describe the likes of Chinese xihuan 喜欢 and shi 是.

    Of course, better to consider the groups of words compatible with specific syntactic constructions than to insist on a priori categories. Incompatibility with to be Xing, for example, is sometimes used to define an English "stative verb" (though other considerations come into play); similarly, (in)compatibility with zhengzai 正在 X, hen 很 X, etc., are used to scope out the terrain in Chinese. It seems that in some respects, Chinese stative verbs (in the generalist sense) and xingrongci 形容词 group together, as hen hui 很会, hen xihuan 很喜欢, etc., are possible, parallel to hen hong 很红 or hen kuai 很快 but different from *hen pao 很跑… but of course other rubrics could separate these two "classes."

  19. JS said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

    Oops; sorry for some redundancy with Michael Watts' remarks above me…

  20. JS said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

    Chinese wiki on 形容词 suggests another sort of test:


    So this is all far from resolved…

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 12:01 am

    Michael Watts asks us to understand Chinese grammar on its own terms, then forces upon it a peculiarly Western interpretation of stative verb


    "So this is all far from resolved…"


    To quote myself above: "Chinese grammar is still being worked out…."

  22. Michael Watts said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    > Michael Watts asks us to understand Chinese grammar on its own terms, then forces upon it a peculiarly Western interpretation of stative verb

    I don't understand this charge. I've been trying to get at two questions:

    1. Would a native speaker of Chinese agree that in the sentence "东方红", the 红 is a 动词 and not a 形容词?

    2. Taking the chinese grammatical class of 形容词 as a given, does it make more sense to refer to it in English as "adjectives" or as "stative verbs"?

    (1) is phrased entirely in terms of Chinese, though I admit I haven't made that explicit previously. And (2) is a question about English usage. "Stative verb" is not a Chinese term, it is an English one, and what's more it is a term of art in linguistics with an established meaning. Similarly, we don't think of Geoff Pullum as trying to force a peculiarly academic interpretation of the term "passive voice" on people; we think of "passive voice" as being a term of art.

    Stative verbs are not a syntactic class in English (and the definitions on wikipedia and SIL are both semantic in nature, not syntactic). Any verb can be used statively:

    Q: What do you do for a living?
    A: I jump off of bridges.

    But some verbs can (almost) only be used statively. And I see that what I think of as the paradigm stative verbs, "be", "like", and "know", are all 动词 in Chinese (是, 喜欢, and 知道). I see that if we call 形容词 "stative verbs", we immediately conclude that Chinese contains no adjectives at all, and "Chinese has no adjectives" seems like a more surprising claim than "Chinese, like many other languages, does not permit a copula in simple predicative-adjective sentences such as 'this house is big'". I see that 形容词 means "describing words", which is a near-perfect match to the basic concept of an adjective, as 动词 "moving words" is a near-perfect match to the basic concept of a verb. I see that what are commonly called "helping verbs" in English are called 助动词 "helping verbs" in Chinese, so the idea of having a special class of verb is not unthinkable. But 形容词 are referred to differently. It seems straightforward to me that "stative verbs" should refer to a class of words which are (1) verbs and (2) stative, and I definitely agree that 形容词 are stative, but I've never seen a particularly clear argument that they're verbs. If one exists, I would be very happy to see it, but I note that the source you referred to me on wikipedia calls them "adjectives".

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    @Michael Watts

    I mentioned above that some Chinese language teachers call them "adjectival verbs".

    Please bear in mind that these professional Chinese language teachers have adopted these categories in an effort to help their students understand Chinese grammar on its own terms.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    I've tried to translate the passage JS quotes; I welcome correction in the all too likely event that I've oversimplified, misunderstood, or just plain screwed up.

    There is research which indicates, in Chinese there is a group of words (属性词? Quality-indicating words?) which can directly modify nouns without needing a 的. These words are the class of 形容词, which are independent (distinct?) from verbs in Chinese. But in Chinese the scope of (the term?) 形容词 is smaller than is generally believed, and does not include words such as "安静" (quiet), "诚实" (honest), etc. that cannot freely act as 定语 (的-less modifiers).

    Am I correct in reading this as making the argument that, if I can say "一个大杯子" ("a large cup"), 大 qualifies as a 形容词 because it didn't need support from 的 to modify 杯子, whereas because I cannot say "一个安静杯子" but must instead say "一个安静的杯子" ("a quiet cup"), 安静 is not a true 形容词?

  25. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 7:21 am

    Though "a quiet cup", whether in English or in Mandarin, is an unusual expression, statistics basically, but not entirely, bear out your assertion:

    "一个安静的杯子" 7 ghits (expanded search yields 36 ghits, but it appears that most are repetitions of the first 7)

    "一个安静杯子" 1 ghit

    I would probably never have occasion to say either of these phrases, but if I were forced to say one of them, I'd say the former.

  26. Neil Ren said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    @Michael Watts

    In answer to the two questions that puzzle you:

    1. Would a native speaker of Chinese agree that in the sentence "东方红", the 红 is a 动词 and not a 形容词?

    As a native speaker of Chinese, and after brief discussion with my friends, we all agree that 红 is a 动词 rather than a 形容词. We further think that this verb depicts the process of dawnbreak, espcially the moment the sun jumps out of the horizon lighting up the entire sky and painting it red. In addition, this expression most famously collocates with 太阳升, as in "东方红,太阳升,中国出了个毛泽东" (The East going red, the sun rising up, China sees the arrival of Chairman Mao.) Note that the each clause in this sentence begins with a paralleled structure.

    2. Taking the chinese grammatical class of 形容词 as a given, does it make more sense to refer to it in English as "adjectives" or as "stative verbs"?

    To be quite frank whether CHinese has a grammatical class of 形容词 remains an issue, as pointed out by other comments. In areas like NLP we are using 形容词 more likely because many systems originate from English and have "adjectives" predefined. However, one of my friends studying Chinese linguistics and Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language strongly defends against the idea of having 形容词 added to the grammatical categories of Chinese.

  27. Neil Ren said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

    After a quick interview with seven or eight of my friends who have no linguistics background, none of them regard any of the Chinese sentences concerned difficult to interpret their ambiguity, and all agreed that these statements are easy to understand. Several points out, in addition, that these samples are just jokes circling around the Internet. So it is possible that the comparison of ambiguity to optical illusion in this context be limited to non-native Chinese speakers.

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