If I say

  • The dog and the postman fought.

can this sentence mean that the dog and the postman fought not with each other, but each of them fought with a different creature? That is, can this sentence mean that the dog fought Jack and the postman fought Alex? Or can the original sentence mean that the postman and the dog fought Jack? Or does the original sentence necessarily imply that the postman and the dog fought with each other?

And similarly, if I say

  • Alex and John talked.

can this mean that Alex talked to Mary and John talked to Sue (or that Alex and John talked to Sue)?

  • 1
    If ambiguity is not resolved by context, people usually add clarifying phrases, e.g. John and Mary danced with each other all evening. The dog and postman fought each other. – Michael Harvey Nov 10 '19 at 20:42

All of the presented possibilities are possible and reading the sentence in isolation can only leave you to guess which one is correct. The standard implication for both sentences is that the two subjects are doing the action with each other. With surrounding context, however, other meanings could become more likely.

There are also other words you could add to both sentences to clarify, such as "with each other."


This may help. Suppose the answer to a question is "Yes, they fought." This would have two different meanings for two different questions:

Did Joe and Pete fight? Yes, they fought.
Did Joe and Pete fight in the war? Yes, they fought.

In the first case, Joe and Pete are understood to have fought each other. In the second case, they are understood to have fought their respective enemies in a war. So, the two parties are understood to have fought, talked or whatever between themselves, unless another context is provided.

  • But if there is no such question about Joe and Pete, and I say in the vacuum "Joe and Pete fought", then would it be right to say that since no context is provided, "fought" is interpreted as "fought with each other"? Or another example: John and Mary are in love. Does this mean, in the absence of context, that John and Mary are in love with each other, or can it mean that they are in love, but not with each other? – user91073 Nov 10 '19 at 23:40
  • @user91073 Yes, that's exactly what I'm trying to say. If you don't provide an alternative context, "with each other" is understood. That's also true of "John and Mary are in love." Unless you say something like "John and Mary are in love with money," then they are understood to be in love with each other. – BobRodes Nov 10 '19 at 23:43
  • But there appears to be a difference between "to fight" and "to be in love". I think the sentence "John is in love" is grammatical, even though it has no object (cf. "John fought", which is I believe ungrammatical because the object is not present). This being so, I thought that the sentence "John and Mary are in love" in the absence of context can be interpreted as "John is in love (with someone) and Mary is in love (with someone)", and this interpretation does not seem to me "worse" than "John and Mary are in love with each other". But I'm not a native speaker so my judgements may be wrong. – user91073 Nov 11 '19 at 0:05
  • @user91073 The alternative interpretation that you offer isn't "worse," but it's certainly "wrong." So yes, your judgment is wrong. :) I'll repeat: "John and Mary are in love" has the exclusive meaning of being in love with each other, unless something else is specified. Now, "John fought" is a perfectly grammatical sentence. When a verb is intransitive (fight can be either transitive or intransitive), it doesn't take an object, so all that is needed for a complete sentence is a subject and verb. "I swim" is another complete sentence of the same type. – BobRodes Nov 12 '19 at 3:46

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