I'm learning the word "apparent" which has two apparently different meanings: (1) obvious (2) looks true, but not.

How do people solve the ambiguity here? For example, republicans could describe president-elect Biden as an apparent victory, which may imply that the result could be turned over after recounting. On the other hand, democrats can also say Biden has an apparent victory because of no clue of wide-spreading fraud. Are there any convention to separate the two opposite meanings?

  • Can you give a better example? The over use of 'apparent' is not ambiguous here. It still means 'obvious or expected [subject]' Whether it is winning amount of vote counts or election fraud. How Biden won is ambiguous (is open to interpretation) until either of the two are proven.
    – user19179
    Nov 27, 2020 at 0:54
  • @GWarner A transcript of NBC meet the press: "On Friday, NBC News projected President Trump the winner in North Carolina and called Joe Biden the apparent winner in Georgia, meaning the results are close enough that the outcome could depend on the recount that is currently underway. That's when we use the word apparent, whenever it can slip into recount territory." Though in my own opinion, Biden is obviously the winner. The author explained it anyway. But if he didn't, looks like it could be interpreted either way.
    – Frank Mi
    Nov 27, 2020 at 3:05
  • @GWarner I'm a English newbie, please forgive me that I couldn't find a good example. But the two meanings are opposite, it is possible to have ambiguity in some cases (according to a learner's point of view). If you don't agree, could you explain a little bit more?
    – Frank Mi
    Nov 27, 2020 at 3:07
  • NBC called Joe Biden the apparent winner meaning that he appeared to have won, but it might turn out otherwise. To use the word in the other sense, they would have had to say something like 'It's quite apparent that Biden is the winner'. Nov 27, 2020 at 9:01
  • The short answer is No. It is impossible to be sure what sense is intended without querying the person making the statement. You may be able to form a solid option about the intent from context and surrounding comments but you may be guessing incorrectly. Be wary.
    – jwpfox
    Nov 27, 2020 at 12:20

1 Answer 1


One of use of "apparent" (likewise "apparently") is literal - the word means that something is observable. The other use is the opposite - it suggests that some people claim to have observed it, but you have yet to see anything convincing yourself. It could be described as a sarcastic use of the word, and often is said in a sarcastic tone.

When someone is sarcastic, their tone of voice and body language, as well as the context, usually tells you so. Likewise, the use of the words "apparent" and "apparently" are usually shown by their context to be either literal and sincere or not.

As a rule of thumb, if there is no need to say that something is apparent, then it is probably being used to cast doubt as in your example of "the apparent winner". If someone has been declared winner, that would not normally be in doubt. Adding "apparent" suggests that while some people have declared that to be true, others may still doubt it.

When the word is used literally ("apparent" literally means that something is observable) it is usually to clarify something that is already doubted by someone else.

  • Do you mean the meaning of it has to be determined by the context?
    – Frank Mi
    Nov 27, 2020 at 17:37

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