Is "trace the route" in the following ambiguous between a finger-moving action and actual driving, walking, or otherwise moving along a route in the real world?

John traced the route on the map.

I'd appreciate your help.

2 Answers 2


The sentence would be understood to mean that John ran his finger/pencil etc along the route concerned on the paper/digital map in front of him.

In the real world, he would follow/take the route, whether on foot/cycle/vehicle etc.

  • But in "A tear traced a path down her cheek," "trace" can mean actual movement along a path, not any kind of simulation. Why is it interpreted differently from the one in the OP?
    – Apollyon
    Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 10:33
  • 1
    As is so often the case, context is everything. Words are slippery customers. They are understood to mean completely different things in different situations. A word such as sanction can actually be interpreted as either to allow or to punish. Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 10:53
  • Context has limits. It'd be interesting (and important) to know what it is about the context that makes a certain interpretation possible/impossible.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 10:56
  • What makes a certain interpretation the most likely is knowledge. We know that people trace routes on maps, that tears trace routes down cheeks. Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 11:20
  • @Apollyon "John traced a route" is not: "a tear traced a path". I don't believe a tear has a finger.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 16:08

To “trace” (in this sense) means to mark a path.

If you trace a route with a pencil/pen, you would be drawing that path on the map. This is the same usage as a tear tracing a path on your cheek: it leaves a trail behind it just like a pen/pencil on paper.

If you trace a route with your finger, that isn’t going to leave a visible mark, but someone watching the action will “see” the indicated path in their mind, so we can use it for this as well.

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