INTENDED MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS
College of Information Technology, Universiti Tenaga Nasional
Putrajaya Campus, Jalan IKRAM-UNITEN, 43000 Kajang, Selangor, Malaysia
Department of Language and Literature, Faculty of Education and Social Sciences
Universiti Tun Abdul Razak,
Block C, Leisure Commerce Square, No. 09, Jalan PJS 08/0946150 Petaling Jaya, Selangor,
In this article, we explain the new concept of intended multiple interpretations (IMI) using single
sentences in English. IMI can be said to be in effect when all of the reasonable and (usually equally
likely) interpretations of the sentence are, in fact, intended by the writer or speaker within the
particular context. Even though relatively rare, they do occur; usually unintended. Besides being a
linguistic curiosity, such sentences can be exploited to make language more economical by
minimizing the number of words, i.e. by using one sentence instead of two or more. An additional
advantage is the reduction or removal of ambiguity by making it clear – using a proposed IMI symbol
at the end of the sentence – that more than one interpretation is indeed intended. Sentences of this
kind take advantage of the amazing semantic capabilities of the human brain (to establish the proper
context). However, they do rely on a reasonably strong command of the language in order to be
effective and useful.
Human languages are not perfect vehicles of communication (Kinsella and Marcus 2009) and
therefore often require additional clarification using more words. This is especially true when
we cannot be certain that even the intended audience will always know what we mean. In
many cases, a sentence can be interpreted in more than one way, usually depending on its
context. In such an instance where we are conscious of this – unless, of course, it is our
intention to be, say, humorous, poetic or vague – we will usually attempt to rephrase the
sentence or explain a little further what we mean.
In fewer cases, a sentence can, in fact, be interpreted in two or more ways and all of them just
so happen to convey what we mean in more detail than each interpretation alone. We can
therefore exploit the richness of the language and the remarkable semantic capabilities of the
human brain to say more with less. This is something that goes beyond even ‘natural
language processing’ (NLP) in the field of artificial intelligence (Russel and Norvig 2009)
because it relies on context and intention, not just grammatical rules. Section 2 contrasts
some examples of sentences with more than one interpretation. Section 3 presents the
proposed ‘IMI’ symbol. Section 4 addresses some issues with the intended multiple
interpretations (IMI) concept. Section 5 concludes with a summary of the main points and a
note on other languages.
2 MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS, CONTEXTS AND INTENTIONS
Most readers would probably have come across sentences that can be interpreted in more than
one way. All the possible interpretations may or may not be related, i.e. equally applicable
within the context of whatever else was said (usually just prior). Consider the following
double entendre as an example.
Young children make nutritious snacks.
Here, the two possible interpretations are not equally likely to have been intended as part of
the message being conveyed, whatever the context. The first interpretation may be drawn
from the sentence as, say, the heading of an article which tells of how young children were
able to prepare nutritious snacks. The second interpretation is that young children are
themselves nutritious snacks! This second interpretation may be drawn if the sentence was
read in a story akin to Hansel and Gretel. The two interpretations are therefore clearly
unrelated since they each only make sense in different contexts. So this is not a sentence with
intended multiple interpretations (IMI). It has multiple interpretations, but they are not
intended within the same context. Here is another example similar to the one above.
I'll buy the book now and then decide whether or not to read it later.
In the first interpretation, the speaker or writer is saying that he or she will decide either to
read the book at the present time or to read it later. In the second, the decision is to be made
later and pertains to whether or not to read the book at all. Even though the contexts could be
the same or similar, both interpretations cannot be true or intended, unless ambiguity or
vagueness is actually desired for some reason. In cases where there is no desire for ambiguity
of any kind – such as in the bulk of scientific and business writing – IMI sentences can be
beneficial. Consider the following example which actually happened to occur in one of the
main author’s conversations with a colleague.
You are required to send five copies of the publication to the national library since the ISSN
for it was granted.
In the first interpretation, the sentence is a directive to perform the task of sending five copies
of the publication to the national library because the international standard serial number was
granted; in the second interpretation, it is from the time the serial number was granted. Both
apply here because they are within the same context. Both are also intended by the speaker or
writer. A deeper or lengthier message can therefore be delivered using fewer words. This is
an IMI sentence. Any existing ambiguity can also be lessened or removed completely if it can
be indicated to the listener or reader that multiple interpretations of the sentence are, in fact,
intended (see following section for more on this). Here is another example similar to the
previous one, but with more than two obvious interpretations.
Many Malaysians are Western-educated to a degree.
The first interpretation is that many Malaysians were educated in a Western country to some
extent. The second is that many have obtained one college degree (e.g. Bachelors, Master,
Ph.D.) from a Western country. The third is the same as the first, except that they were not
educated in a Western country but just by a Westerner (perhaps residing or working in
Malaysia). In this case, all three interpretations are reasonable, intended and make sense
within the context. So a lot is being said with so few words. Note that simply adding “at
least” before “to a degree” in the sentence would negate its IMI status in the sense that a
Malaysian cannot quite be both educated at least to some extent and at least to a degree. Here
is a third example of an IMI sentence.
The first team of debaters truly believed the second did not know what they were talking
The word “they” in the sentence could refer to both the first team – in the sense that the
second team perhaps could not understand what the first team was talking about – and in a
derogatory way, the second team – in the sense that the second team was not knowledgeable
enough in the topic being debated. Both interpretations would make sense within the context,
if intended. Here is a fourth and final example that needs no explication.
The duchess can’t bear children. (Bach 2002)
3 THE PROPOSED ‘IMI’ SYMBOL
Sentences that benefit from intended multiple interpretations can be of utility to writers and
speakers if they are exploited for economy of words and reduced ambiguity by using a
symbol at the end of the sentence to inform readers and listeners of their nature. In text, the
five characters “(IMI)” in the same typeface and font – or three characters (sans brackets) in
superscript – at the end of the sentence would suffice for this purpose. Alternatively, our
proposed new single-character symbol may also be used in its place (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The proposed ‘IMI’ symbol
Since the symbol is not part of the standard ASCII (American Standard Code for Information
Interchange) set of characters (or any other), the abbreviation in brackets or in superscript
would be easier to apply for the time being. In speech, it can be indicated by simply saying
“I-M-I” after the sentence. However, this may be distracting to listeners who attempt to think
about the multiple interpretations instead of listening to what the speaker is saying next. The
problem can be remedied by a brief pause; but we should point out that the same problem
exists for phrases with deeper meanings, in any case.
4 OTHER ISSUES
Speech has an advantage over written words in the case of IMI sentences because of
homophones (words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning). However, they are
more difficult to establish within the same context. Here is an example.
Please bear with me.
Please bare with me.
The words “bear” and “bare” sound the same but carry different meanings. If this sentence –
they sound the same when spoken – was indicated has having intended multiple
interpretations, the listener might conclude that the speaker wanted her to tolerate him for the
moment and also remove her clothes (with him). Here is another example in the context of
say, a religious ritual that is being observed by two outsiders. One could say to the other the
following, within context:
This is their rite.
This is their right.
A characteristic of homophones used in spoken IMI sentences is perhaps that they are usually
of the same part of speech. In the first pair, the words “bear” and “bare” are verbs whereas in
the second, the words, “rite” and “right” are nouns. In some languages, such as Chinese, that
take advantage of inflections, facial gestures and other nuances (Hobbs 2006), this same
advantage would exist for written words instead of speech.
One of the disadvantages of IMI sentences is perhaps that those with a below-average
command of the language will have difficulty identifying the other intended interpretations.
To aid them (and to avoid any additional ambiguity), a number indicating the number of
intended interpretations could be included along with the symbol mentioned in the previous
section. For example, “IMI-4” would indicate to the listener or reader that there were four
likely interpretations intended. An unintentional benefit of this is that those with a poorer
command of the language will be forced to think more deeply about the sentence and
improve their command of it.
In this article, we have explained the concept of intended multiple interpretations (IMI) by
providing examples in English. The concept exploits the richness of language and the
semantic capabilities of the human brain. It is beneficial because it can be used to deliver the
meaning of two or more sentences using just one (economy of words). It also minimizes
ambiguity by raising our consciousness as to their existence in writing and speech, and to
alert readers and listeners as to their presence. The ‘IMI’ abbreviation or proposed symbol
can be used to indicate which sentences are intended to have multiple interpretations.
Including the number of intended interpretations with it would help those with a poorer
command of the language.
More elaborate or sophisticated examples of intended multiple interpretations involving
whole paragraphs instead of just single sentences may also be possible in English or some
other human language, but they are likely exceedingly difficult to create. IMI sentences may
be possible in all human languages, not just English. In principle they should be, and
intuitively, the more shades of meaning words can have in a language (e.g. Arabic, Urdu), the
more likely speakers and readers of that language can benefit from them.
We would like to thank Uwe Dippel (formerly with the College of Information Technology,
Universiti Tenaga Nasional) and Renate Kärchner-Ober (formerly with the Faculty of
Modern Languages and Communication, Universiti Putra Malaysia) for their comments and
Bach, K. (2002). Ambiguity, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from
http://online.sfsu.edu/~kbach/ambguity.html. Accessed 4 November 2011.
Hobbs, J. B. (2006). Homophones and Homographs: An American Dictionary (4
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Kinsella, A. R. & Marcus, G. F. (2009). Evolution, Perfection and Theories of Language.
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Russel, S. & Norvig, P. (2009). Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3
Jersey: Prentice Hall.