Spot the Difference between these Identical Phrases

12 Mar 2013

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

> 大学里有两种人不谈恋爱:一种是谁都看不上,另一种是谁都看不上。

> 大学里有两种人最容易被甩:一种人不知道什么叫做爱,一种人不知道什么叫做爱。

> 这些人都是原先喜欢一个人,后来喜欢一个人。

> 网友评论:壮哉我大中文!!外国人绝对看不懂~!

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:

> 大学里有两种人不谈恋爱:一种是谁都看不上,另一种是谁都看不上。

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!

> 大学里有两种人最容易被甩:一种人不知道什么叫做爱,一种人不知道什么叫做爱。

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.

> 这些人都是原先喜欢一个人,后来喜欢一个人。

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

> 网友评论:壮哉我大中文!!外国人绝对看不懂~!

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!).


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


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

  2. Graham Bond Says: March 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm

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

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