Mandarin Janus sentences

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Here are two Chinese sentences that seriously mess with your mind, since they can also mean the opposite of what they seem to say:


Dōngtiān: néng chuān duōshǎo chuān duōshǎo; xiàtiān: néng chuān duō shǎo chuān duō shǎo.


Winter:  wear as much as possible; summer:  wear as little as possible.


Shèngnǚ chǎnshēng de yuányīn yǒu liǎng gè: yī shì shéi dōu kàn bù shàng, èr shì shéi dōu kàn bù shàng.


Reasons why there are shèngnǚ 剩女 ("unmarried / left behind women; spinsters")*:

1. they look down on everybody
(i.e., they can't stand the sight of anybody; they despise / dislike everybody; they are dissatisfied with everybody; they are not attracted to anyone)

2. everybody looks down on them
(i.e., nobody can stand the sight of them; everybody despises / dislikes them; everybody is dissatisfied with them; nobody is attracted to them)

[* See "Chinese terms of address for single ladies" (8/6/12)]

Some people quote these sentences to prove the profundity of Chinese language.  On the other hand, Chinese language teachers hope that their students don't ask them to explain why these sentences act the way they do.

In the title of this post, I have called such puzzlers "Janus sentences", but they might also be referred to as "polysemous / controsemous / contrasemous / autoantosemous sentences" (so far as I know, I have just made up all these terms for the first time).

I have some more sentences along the same lines as the above two examples, but the ones I have already cited should suffice to show that this phenomenon of sentential polysemy / controsemy / contrasemy / autoantosemy is not utterly rare in Mandarin.  I wonder whether there are autoantosemous sentences in English or in other languages.

Autonantonymy exists at the word level in English, for which see the following articles:

"30 words that are their own opposite:  A contronym has contradictory definitions that can mess with your head." by Mary Jo Dilonardo, mother nature network (5/26/15)

"10 Verbs That Are Contronyms", by Kimberly Joki, grammarly blog (12/2/15)

"25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites", by Judith Herman, Mental Floss (10/22/15)

Contronyms are hard enough to deal with, but the context of the sentence in which they occur is usually sufficient to disambiguate their antonymy.  Trying to comprehend both senses of an entire autoantosemous sentence is like clearly separating both aspects of an optical illusion.

[Thanks to Irene Do, Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, and Jinyi Cai]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 5:41 pm

    Since Professor Mair has left these tantalising sentences begging for an explanation, I'll bite.

    The first example uses a familiar construction with repeated quantifiers/pronouns. For example:

    谁想去谁就去 shéi xiǎng qù shéi jiù qù
    'Who wants to go who goes'

    In English this is usually expressed in the form "Whoever wants to go can go / goes".

    In the first sentence, the 多少 duōshao (roughly 'how much') construction is equivalent to 'however much' in English. Therefore, in winter you wear however much you can, in summer you wear however much you can, with the implication that you wear however much you can get away with in that particular season.

    In the second example, the difference is simply that between 谁 as a subject and 谁 as an object. Chinese is well known for being able to strip away most of the arguments of the verb and still make sense. This sentence is a little play on words where stripping away all the other arguments results in a witty ambiguity.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

    I wish there was an edit function. "Get away with" is probably not the right word to express this. In winter, the sense is obviously not "getting away with" wearing so much; it's to do with how many clothes you have available and how many clothes you can physically wear. So yes, it's wear as much as you can.

  3. Arthur Waldron said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

    What does “enjoin” mean ? anw

  4. Hong said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

    One sentence that came up several times in my Wechat recently:
    (Before, I buy a Huawei because I do not have much money. Now I do not have the money enough for a Huawei)

  5. Colin Watson said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    The example that comes readily to mind for English is the punchline from the old linguistics joke about double negatives: "Yeah, right", which can have straightforward non-sarcastic semantics as well.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    Such Janus sentences are not unknown in English because the context of the full sentence does not inevitably clarify word-level autoantonymy. One I saw recently was a financial advice piece on the Wall St. Journal's website with the headline "Why You Might Want to Leave a 401(k) With a Former Employer," where either "leave" in the sense "depart from" and "leave" in the sense "allow to continue without change" are plausible things you might want to do — indeed those are really your only two options. Although it's not *just* the word-level problem because the rival meanings have different syntactic structures, depending on whether "with a former employer" is part of the same NP as "a 401(k)" (with that NP being the only object of the verb) or is instead a separate complement of the verb.

  7. Aylok said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    It can sometimes be ambiguous in a Chinese sentence whether 叫,給 and 讓 are used as passive markers or as verbs. Are there examples of Chinese sentences that are ambiguous as to object and subject (or alternately as to whether the verb is active or passive)?

  8. David Marjanović said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 6:56 pm


    And that's without getting into poetic traditions with lots of multilayered metaphors, so that in Classical Arabic "every word has four meanings: its meaning, the opposite, something to do with camels or horses, and something so obscene you'll have to look it up yourself", while in Classical Sanskrit "every word has four meanings: its meaning, the opposite, 'elephant', and a sex position".

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

    I don't think Bathrobe's explanation mentions that the key to the first pair is the contrast between duo1shao 多少 'a lot; whatever quantity; however much' and duo1 shao3 多 少 'however little' (two words). Also the second pair exploits the mechanics of dou1 都 'all', which must be immediately preverbal and follow the quantified argument, forcing fronting of an object when expressed (zhe4 liang3ge4 wo3 dou1 xi3huan 这两个我都喜欢 lit. these two I both like, etc.)

  10. Bathrobe said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

    "the contrast between duo1shao 多少 'a lot; whatever quantity; however much' and duo1 shao3 多 少 'however little'"

    Yes, I missed that. That means that this sentence works best on a visual level. It doesn't work quite as well on a spoken level.

    In English, it might be like saying "Our French teacher doesn't come from France" with and without stress on "teacher".

    There's no expectation that a teacher of the French language ("French teacher") would come from France, but some extra explanation might be required if you were to say "Our French teacher doesn't come from France". For instance, maybe they come from Réunion.

  11. David Moser said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 8:50 pm

    Note that in most cases the Janus sentences, while identical in form, are usually different in intonation when spoken out loud. In sentence 1. in Victor's article, the emphasis in the second interpretation would definitely be on the "shao" of "duoshao", of course. There's another example I heard, which needs context to clarify. The girlfriend is arranging a meet-up with her boyfriend for a date on Friday. She says:
    (Okay, let's meet at the Fuxingmen subway station. If you get there first, you just wait. If I get there first — you just wait!)
    This sort of works in English, too. 你就等着吧, with the right intonation, can mean "You just wait and see what happens to you," i.e. "You're gonna be in trouble."

  12. Guy said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

    @Arthur Waldron

    As the first link says, to “enjoin” someone is to order them to do or not do a particular thing, to “enjoin” an act is to require or prohibit it. The term is usually used in legal contexts, where it is the verb associated with the noun “injunction”, which is a common type of remedy in many lawsuits (although these words are sometimes used in other contexts). For example, Trump’s travel ban was enjoined by several lower courts, and the injunctions were later modified by the Supreme Court on appeal.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    Note that, in the Pinyin for the first pair of sentences, I distinguished them thus:

    néng chuān duōshǎo chuān duōshǎo

    néng chuān duō shǎo chuān duō shǎo

    So I'm definitely with David Moser when he says that "the emphasis in the second interpretation would definitely be on the 'shao' of 'duoshao'". In this respect, the spoken version is much clearer than the written one. Furthermore, since the Pinyin version is closer to speech than the Hanzi version, it is evidence for Pinyin being able to express certain nuances that are missing in Hanzi texts.

  14. David Morris said,

    November 4, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

    I am an English teacher. I am not an English teacher. Both of those sentences are true!

  15. Michael Prytz said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 1:29 am

    "You will be lucky to get this person to work for you."

    Other poison job reference Janus sentences:
    "I cannot recommend this person too highly."
    "Nobody is better than this man."
    "He is now ready to strike out in a career."
    "Waste no time hiring this person."

    Not quite a true Janus sentence but still pretty funny:
    "I cannot usually recommend a candidate without any qualification whatsoever."

  16. Chris said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 2:07 am

    I've run afoul of this in English. Once, I had a broken piece of software at home. I told a co-worker “I’ll try to get it to work tomorrow”, intending to mean “I’ll try to (bring) it to (the office) tomorrow”, i.e. “I’ll let you fix it,” but they interpreted it to mean I would fix it.

    In general, I would think that “get” would be a large source of these in English. For example:
    Q: Why is a heat pump great?
    A1: It gets cold out in winter. (i.e. the outside becomes cold)
    A2: It gets cold out in winter. (i.e. the heat pump makes the inside warm)

    Phrasal verbs probably work too:

    How to brainstorm:
    1. Throw out some ideas
    2. Throw out some ideas
    3. Repeat

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 2:13 am

    For an example in English, how about the first half of a quote often attributed to Dorothy Parker: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly", meaning either that it is well worth reading or that it is not at all worth reading.

  18. Sara Peden said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 3:40 am

    Fascinating discussion to skim through when you're a person like me who hasn't had much exposure to this level of detailed knowledge about languages/structures. I know most of it was in English, but it reads like a foreign language (albeit with a common root to one I know). So here's what I'd like to contribute – everybody can relax by re-reading the childhood stories of Amelia Bedelia! (I hope someone will recognize the connection!)

  19. Rubrick said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 5:08 am

    This may not be quite parallel (I don't speak Mandarin), but a famous example in English is from a classic Saturday Night Live sketch: "You can't put too much water into a nuclear reactor." Sightly surprisingly, I'm unable to find the sketch online.

  20. WSM said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 5:47 am

    *would* the emphasis be on "shao" in the summer case? Do native speakers really stress that second syllable in actual speech?

  21. Tom davidson said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 6:36 am

    One of my all time favorites is不開灯不亮!

  22. Hans Adler said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    Probably not news to anyone here, but in English, uncertainty about negations is a natural source of Janus sentences. The first example is from a discrepancy between standard and common non-standard negation:

    Two reasons why you might get in trouble hereabouts:

    1. You didn't do nothing!
    2. You didn't do nothing.

    The second is from a misnegation that has become an idiom.

    Two reasons why you might be in the wrong job:

    1. You could care less about it!
    2. You could care less about it.

    Another source of Janus sentences is of course Janus words such as "sanction" (see Hugh Rawson on Janus words here: )

    As I see it, we have to options:

    1. Sanction this behaviour.
    2. Sanction this behaviour.

    But I don't remember seeing this humourous style of presentation of a Janus sentence before.

  23. Jon Forrest said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    The best example I can think of in English is the fact that these two
    sentences mean the same thing (to me – I'm a native speaker):

    1) I couldn't care less.

    2) I could care less.


  24. BillR said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 11:59 am

    A long time ago some coworkers and I riffed for days on what we called Nothing Poems.

    Nothing is better than Something

    Nothing is Awesome

    Nothing is ambiguous

    Nothing hurts

    The game was that the phrase, nothing verb, can be contra-ish to itself. Works especially well when you’re high.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 12:36 pm


    Very good! You guys would make good Zenists.

  26. Rodger C said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    There was a sitcom some years ago whose first episode involved a young woman answering an ad for an assistant to "an English major." She arrived expecting an undergraduate and found a retired military officer from England.

  27. January First-of-May said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 10:45 pm

    I am an English teacher. I am not an English teacher. Both of those sentences are true!

    A few weeks ago, I happened to post an anecdote somewhere that involved my university department's English professor.

    "To clarify," I noted (I'm paraphrasing a little here), "I'm referring to our exchange professor from England. He didn't actually teach English – his Russian wasn't good enough for it to work properly. I think he taught History of Mathematics."

    (The English professor in question really existed, and really taught History of Mathematics at our department – indeed, to the best of my knowledge, he still does; I'm not sure if he actually was an exchange professor, or whether there's even such a thing as an exchange professor.)

  28. philip said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 5:26 am

    From a poem to my wife:

    I could not possibly love you less …

    She took the intended meaning from it, but the other one is there on purpose for ambiguity.

    In Irish, standard direct relative clause sentences are all Janus, unless an alternative construction (indirect relative for one meaning) is used. Context tell them apart:

    Sin an fear a bhuail an sagart = That is the man the priest hit/That is the man who hit the priest.

  29. Chris Button said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

    *would* the emphasis be on "shao" in the summer case? Do native speakers really stress that second syllable in actual speech?

    Following on from Jonathan Smith's point, the stress is identifiable by the retention of the tone on "shǎo" which is lost in the preceding phrase where it surfaces a atonic "shao". A parallel example would be dōngxi "things" and dōngxī "east-west". My understanding based on Kratochvil's work is that tones in iambic (unstressed – stressed) compounds are retained on unstressed syllables, but have a tendency to be lost on unstressed syllables in trochaic compounds (stressed+unstressed). I'm also not sure if emphasis is the right word here; focal prominence (controlled in English where we place our nuclear tone in relation to the rest of a phrase) I believe often comes in tone languages like Chinese (on their tone-bearing syllables at least) from a complete realisation of a tone hitting its optimal target (as a single syllable would when spoken in isolation) as opposed to the truncated versions that occur otherwise. Perhaps someone more qualified in this area can help me out here…

  30. Phil Ramsden said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

    Nothing works as well as a homeopathic remedy.

  31. WSM said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

    @Chris Button the problem is that, as Bathrobe noted initially, the usage of 多少 is perfectly intelligible as "however" in both cases (without forcing an interpretation as "多 少" which seems suspect to me). I think the final answer as to which interpretation is correct boils down to whether native speakers really would pronounce 多少 differently in the two contexts? I can't claim to have ever heard 多少 in a context where it tilted towards meaning "fewer" rather than "more", but I can claim to have never heard 多少 be pronounced in a way that implies emphasis on either 多 or 少…

  32. Emily said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 11:45 pm

    Silly joke I recall from my childhood:
    Teacher: Do you like doing math?
    Student: I like nothing better!

    Also, an ambiguity I once encountered on a linguistics exam during my undergrad years: "…discussing Chomsky at a minimum." (Intended meaning is "your discussion must cover at least Chomsky" rather than "discuss Chomsky as little as possible.")

  33. Emily said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

    Also, "you can't have too many puppies."

  34. Chris Button said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

    @ WSM

    but I can claim to have never heard 多少 be pronounced in a way that implies emphasis on either 多 or 少…

    As I said before, I think "stress" rather than "emphasis" would possibly be a more appropriate term here. When 多少 is said as "duōshao" with an atonic 少 "shǎo" then that is because 多 "duō" is more stressed. As to the specific case here, I am not a native speaker nor anywhere near as proficient in Modern Mandarin as many others here, so I can't really comment further.

  35. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    @WSM, the reason Ib. is to be interpreted as containing the two words duo1 多 'however' + shao3 少 'few, little' is because that's the joke. It would be useful to examine a context in which this is the unambiguous interpretation. Would you say that in 这个时候国民还很少,网站链接就更谈不上有多少了!the bolded is unambiguously duo1 'how' + shao3 'few'? If so then one could proceed to talk about whether this combination of two words is distinguishable from duo1shao at the phonological or phonetic level, the issue Chris Button is exploring. Actually, writing Tone 3 "duo1 shao3" vs. "neutral tone" in "duo1shao" is just an orthographical device. In the case of Ib., it would shock me if one interpretation were actually distinguishable from the other outside of highly unnatural pause + emphasis by the speaker, but the general question is of theoretical interest.

  36. Bathrobe said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 7:10 pm


    I can claim to have never heard 多少 be pronounced in a way that implies emphasis on either 多 or 少

    I know it's a totally different context, but what about constructions like the following?

    多好!duō hǎo
    多漂亮!duō piàoliang
    多少!duō shǎo

    It seems to me that the third one would be possible in Mandarin.

  37. Bathrobe said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 7:14 pm

    To clarify for those unfamiliar with Mandarin, 多好! means 'that's good, that's great!', 多漂亮! means 'that's beautiful!', 多少! means 'that's really a small amount!'

  38. Jon Forrest said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

    Another odd pair in English:

    "I drank a few beers last night"

    "I drank quite a few beers last night"

    You'd think the second would mean fewer beers than the first,
    but it doesn't.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    duō hǎo 多好 = duōme hǎo 多么好 ("how good!")
    duō piàoliang 多漂亮 = duōme piàoliang 多么漂亮 ("how beautiful!")
    duō shǎo 多少 = duōme shǎo 多么少 ("how few!")

    duōshǎo 多少 ("how many")

  40. Chris Button said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    duō shǎo 多少 = duōme shǎo 多么少 ("how few!")

    I'd also put the loss of the unstressed atonic "me" down to stress.

  41. Noel Hunt said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

    Sentence 1.
    While the translations are accurate, they obscure the fundamental meaning of this sentence: 'For some quantity x, if you can wear x amount of clothes, then wear x amount of clothes.' The fact that 'x' is 'least' in one environment, and 'most' in another is a function of semantic interpretation—are we talking about summer or winter?

    Sentence 2.
    This relies on the ambiguity caused by null pronouns and topicalization of the object, so that 'shei' in the position it is in can be interpreted as subject, with an null (anaphoric) pronoun as object after 'kan bu shang', hence 'for all x, x looks down on (her)', or, it can be taken as a topicalization of what was originally the object of 'kan bu shang', with the subject of 'kan bu shang' being, again, a null anaphoric pronoun—underlyingly, you would have '[ta] dou kan bu shang shei', with the 'dou' still quantifying over 'shei'; 'for all x, [she] looks down on x'.

    In sum, I'm not sure there is anything really mysterious about these sentences.

  42. WSM said,

    November 8, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

    @Jonathan Smith : yeah but it doesn't mean "how very few there are" there: if it did, they wouldn't say 谈不上 immediately prior. I interpret " 网站链接就更谈不上有多少" literally (if unidiomatically) as "and as for web links, it's even harder to say that there are any [to speak of]". If "多少" meant "how very few" there the sentence would read "it's even harder to say that there are so few"- meaning that there are lot, which is clearly not what's going on in the sentence (as we know from the 更)!

    I don't really have a problem with the idea of there being stresses in spoken Mandarin (!), but I remain curious whether any such stresses exist, specifically wrt 多少, in a way that justifies an interpretation of 多少 as 多么少. Do you really think that “有这种想法的人到底有多少?" means "Just how few people are there that have this opinion" as opposed to "Just what number of people are there that have this opinion"?

  43. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

    Hi WSM, I think you're being overly prescriptive in your interpretation of the sentence I quoted, but it doesn't really matter; I was just trying to find an example where duo1 shao3 多少 clearly means 'how few?' or 'so few'. If you are arguing that this is simply impossible (not sure if this is your position), there is little point in exploring a possible pronunciation difference involving stress or some other between this combination and duo1shao(3) 多少 'how many, etc.' (Of course your new example is to be understood to contain 'how many'.)
    @Noel Hunt, You miss the joke in 1a vs. 1b along the lines of the first comment above. Not sure how to interpret the fact that this is so opaque to commenters. Perhaps duo1 + shao3 as interrogative + adjective (compare duo1 + duo1) is really to be washed out by duo1shao…

  44. Bathrobe said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

    Yes, we seem to be going round in circles. Noel Hunt is saying what I said in my very first comment, although he does so in a far more explicit, intelligent, and professional manner.

    The point of my example of 多少 'how much' vs 多少!'how few' (VM) was to illustrate that two differentiated pronunciations/intonations are possible depending on the stress. It was not intended to argue that the sense in the example cited in the post was 'how very few!'

  45. Tom Hayes said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

    How about the rejection letter that starts: "We have read your manuscript and much like it . . ."

  46. Emily said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

    @Tom: In a similar vein, "We lost no time in reading your submission."

  47. Nicki said,

    November 10, 2017 @ 12:30 am

    I once had a professor who, whenever anyone said something that he considered truly idiotic, would reply "you can't argue with that!"

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