Spot the Difference between these Identical Phrases

One of our star teachers at AllSet Learning recently shared this with me:





This is definitely a tricky one, and you’re not likely to be able to appreciate it if you’re not at least the intermediate level. So forgive me for not providing pinyin and translations for everything.

Like many jokes, this joke relies on ambiguity. Understanding the different sentences requires some understanding of semantic ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity.

Here’s what’s going on:


谁都看不上 can be interpreted as either “doesn’t like anyone” or “isn’t liked by anyone.” You’re not normally going to see both meanings used in one sentence!


This is a parsing issue, and revolves around the word 叫做 being a synonym for 叫: “叫做 爱” (“to be called love”) vs. “叫 做爱” (“to be called making love”). In spoken Chinese, you would definitely pause to verbally insert the “space” that I have typed above.


So 一个人 can be interpreted as both “a person” and “[to be] alone.”


You can’t really praise Chinese for having ambiguity; every language does. And what one human mind can encode, another can decode (native speaker or not!).

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3 Comments to “Spot the Difference between these Identical Phrases

  1. Sido says:

    Most interesting, thank you ! Fascinating how Chinese can be so subtle with only a few 汉字。

  2. Graham Bond says:

    Nice post, John. A fine job in elucidating some of the fascinating ambiguities of Chinese – a language so profound that even 60 years of insidious Communist Newspeak hasn’t poisoned its every extremity. You also do a valuable job in rejecting the lazy (and slightly ’19th century’, if I may say so) notion that ambiguity represents something exotic, and mystical, and unique. Good stuff.

  3. Jack says:

    Nice post. There are about 700 million Chinese people who also wouldn’t understand it…

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