Does the sentence below refer to visitors of a barber shop or to barbers themselves?

Bad guys shave here.

Could you explain the rule that governs such expressions ?

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    Please wait a day or two before accepting an answer, even if you receive a good one right away. For why this is usually wise, read here.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 17, 2017 at 2:22

1 Answer 1


This is unambiguously active, but it is nonetheless ambiguous, because shave may be transitive, designating the act of shaving another, or intransitive, designating the act of shaving oneself. Consequently the sentence may mean that this is a place where barbers who are bad guys shave their clients (the Patient/Direct Object of the verb being inferred) or a place where men who are bad guys shave themselves.

The passive would entail the transitive sense, but it would require the verb to be expressed as BE shaved, with the Patient cast as Subject:

Bad guys are shaved here.

  • Thank you for the reply! So, it is basically the transitivity of the verb to shave that makes it ambiguous. Is there any way to remove the ambiguity in such sentences (besides using passive voice) or they are intrinsically ambiguous?
    – Konstantin
    Jun 16, 2017 at 23:23
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    @Konstantin There's rarely any ambiguity in context. If you see this on a sign, the place where it hangs is probably going to tell you which meaning is intended. Jun 16, 2017 at 23:25
  • @Konstantin ...and the transitive shave is not likely to be intended on such a sign, since few customers actively seek a barber who is a bad guy. Context is your friend. (Consider also, though, that bad could here be an example of inverted meaning.) Jun 16, 2017 at 23:53
  • Wouldn't you expect the passive in such a context to be formed with get? "Bad guys get shaved here." Also, guys in such a context should be spelled with a z. ;)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 17, 2017 at 2:24
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    @P.E.Dant Consider also that there is surely a market for people who want to get shaved by a bad guy. There is a tattoo parlor in my town named "Evil by the Needle". They might serve the same clientele as Konstantin's Barber Shop.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 17, 2017 at 2:34

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