124. Structures with a Double Meaning 1


Double Meaning

Some grammar structures are able to be understood in more than one way, just like some words



Language structures are the result of combining meaningful parts of a message together according to grammatical rules. They can exist in single words, but this post and the later one 182. Structures with a Double Meaning 2 are about multi-word ones. Like single words, multi-word structures can sometimes be interpreted in two or more different ways.  For example, the combination of BE and an -ing verb (e.g. is considering) could be taken as a use of the present continuous tense or as a form of BE linked to a complement (see 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2 and 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”).

The aim of this post is to highlight some fairly common multi-word structures with different possible meanings, in order to reduce the possibility of misunderstandings in reading. Some of the structures are also mentioned in other posts, but having them all together in one place seems worthwhile. Guinlist posts on individual words with double meanings include 3. Multi-Use Words,  7. Metaphorical Meanings,  11. Homonyms and Homographs121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs and 176. Ways of Using GO.

It may be asked why some linguistic forms have different possible meanings, when this must surely create a potential for misunderstandings. The answer is that different meanings develop for fairly good reasons, and are rarely a problem because the context or situation where the form is used normally indicates so clearly which meaning is intended that we do not even think of the alternative one. This phenomenon is, indeed, the basis of many jokes in English (for an example, see 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition).



1. “-ing” Verbs before a Noun

This area is examined in depth in the post 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”. As that title implies, the -ing ending signifies either a gerund or a participle. We normally recognise a gerund usage if the word is being used in a typical noun position, for example as the subject of a verb, and a participle one with usage in a typical adjective position. The potential for double meanings arises in sentence positions where both a noun and an adjective are possible, such as just before a noun (see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives), as in this example:

(a) Gardens can be improved by growing plants.

It is not clear here whether growing plants means “plants that are growing” (participle usage) or “making plants grow” (gerund usage), or even “plants for growing” (alternative gerund usage).


2. Preposition Phrases after Verb Objects

What is the double meaning in the following sentence from the post 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions?

(b) The robbers attacked the old man with a stick.

The verb here is attacked. It has the object the old man and, immediately after, the underlined preposition phrase. One interpretation is that the stick belonged to the robbers, the other that it was the old man’s.

The reason why both meanings are possible is that preposition phrases like with a stick can add information about either verbs or nouns, being adverb-like in the first case and adjective-like in the second (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). We understand the adverb-like use if there is no noun immediately in front, and, in many cases, the adjective-like use otherwise. However, when a preceding noun is also the object of a verb, as in (b), both interpretations are possible. In that case, interpreting with a stick as adverb-like links it with the hitting by the robbers, meaning they had it, whereas seeing it as adjective-like links it with the old man, meaning he had it.

More on the adjective and adverb uses of preposition phrases is in the posts 72. Causal Prepositions and 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases.


3. “If” + Past Simple Tense Verb

This double meaning is illustrated by the following sentence from the post 118. Problems with Conditional “If”:

(c) If Athens was threatened, the citizens would call an Assembly.

Without a context to help us, we cannot tell whether this sentence is about Athens today or in the past. If it is the former, the past-tense verb after if expresses an unreal present event – indicating that Athens is not being threatened today – and would has a conditional meaning. However, in a past context, if is more like whenever in meaning, suggesting repeated real historical events (see 179. Deeper Meanings of “if”), and would has the  meaning of “used to”.

In (c), the verb after if is in the “past simple” tense. The “past perfect” tense (with had) can also indicate both a real and an unreal event. However, it does not carry a double meaning, since the second verb needs would in the first case (= “used to”) and would have in the second (see 171. Aspects of the Past Perfect Tense).


4. “was/were to” + Verb

The double-meaning potential of this structure is observed in the post 119. BE Before a “to” Verb. Consider this:

(d) Scott was to return to camp three days later.

One possible interpretation is that the verb expresses an arrangement made by Scott with his colleagues, without confirming whether or not it was actually fulfilled. The other is that the verb indicates Scott’s destiny – something that actually happened, but had not yet happened at the time for Scott – regardless of whether or not it was an arrangement.


5. Action Noun + “of”

Action nouns are like verbs in spelling and meaning. Examples are reversal, storage, creation and movement (see 14. Action Outcomes and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). The preposition of introduces someone or something involved in the action, either causing it or affected by it, depending on the kind of action noun used (see 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2). The possibility of either meaning being understood arises with a special subgroup of action nouns. Consider this:

(e) The movement of animals presents problems.

Here animals could be understood as either moved by something else (for example trucks) or moving themselves (walking freely). In the first case, the word is like the object of a verb; in the second it is like the subject. The reason for the double meaning is that the related verb MOVE can have two kinds of subject: either a mover of something else or a self-mover – it is a verb of the kind discussed in the post 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive. Other nouns like movement that come from verbs of this kind include development, recovery, change and increase.


6. Adjective + Two Paired Nouns

Paired nouns are analysed within this blog in the post 38. Nouns Used Like Adjectives. They comprise two nouns together, the first describing the second in an adjective-like way. Examples are a coffee cup, the Washington climate and fuel prices. We know that the first noun in such pairs is a noun and not an adjective because it cannot be manipulated in the same way as adjectives. Adjectives can make sense if placed after the noun they describe with which is/are in between (e.g. an empty cup easily becomes a cup which is empty). However, doing the same with a noun describing another noun will probably make nonsense – we cannot say *a cup which is coffee.

Two paired nouns can easily have an adjective before them, e.g. a hot coffee cup. The problem is that this adjective can be linked with either of the nouns: the meaning could be either “a hot cup for coffee” or “a cup for hot coffee”. In most cases, common sense or context makes the intended meaning clear. For example, few people would interpret unnecessary police warnings as “warnings about unnecessary police”. By contrast, less certain cases like desirable customer accounts are perhaps best avoided by changing the nouns into either a possessive construction (desirable customers’ accounts – see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings), or a preposition one (desirable accounts of customers).


7. “Too/Enough …” + “to” VERB

Verbs with to (infinitives) can express both purpose and result. The purpose meaning usually needs the subject of the sentence to be living and the verb to express an action rather than a state (see 60. Purpose Sentences with “For”), like this:

(f) Some children study hard to succeed.

For the result meaning, on the other hand, there must often be enough or too earlier in the sentence (see 32. Expressing Consequences). Double meanings exist when both the purpose and the result requirements are met, as in this example:

(g) Some children study too hard to succeed.

The two possible meanings of to succeed here are “in order to succeed” (purpose) and “so that they do not succeed” (result). With the purpose meaning, the success or failure of the purpose is not clear, and we could place too hard at the end of the sentence.


8. “a/the” + NOUN

Alternative meanings of the articles a(n) and the are considered in the Guinlist posts 89. Using “the” with General Meaning and 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”. Both articles can express either a general or a specific meaning. Normally, the intended meaning can be discovered from a grammar clue in the rest of the sentence, especially the tense of the verb: present continuous, for example, indicating specificness. This help is neutralised, however, with verbs that cannot be used in the continuous tenses, such as KNOW. What are the two possible meanings of the following?

(h) The/A cheetah knows when to give up the chase.

Without a context, we do not know whether this sentence is about all cheetahs at all times (general) or a particular one on a particular occasion (specific). If we wish to ensure that the general meaning is understood, we have to make the underlined words plural without the (cheetahs) or add an adverb like generally.


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