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Here's the sentence I can't figure out, 'are you feeling unwell because you ate too much?' (It's from the Cambridge Dictionary)

Does it ask:

  1. the reason I am feeling unwell

or

  1. whether I am feeling unwell or not?
8
  • 3
    It is asking whether your excessive eating has caused you to feel unwell? Jul 9 at 16:25
  • @RonaldSole So, in the end, the point is how I am feeling?
    – Michael
    Jul 9 at 16:28
  • 2
    The point is the cause of your feeling unwell. Jul 9 at 16:30
  • 4
    Bloody natural languages! No operator precedences, no bracketing... Jul 10 at 16:39
  • 1
    @MattTimmermans no, it’s not.
    – Tim
    Jul 11 at 16:39

7 Answers 7

7

If I heard this question, I’d assume I looked unwell and that the person was asking me if that was the reason. If I wanted to ask whether someone who ate a lot is feeling unwell, I might ask something like,

That was a big meal. Are you feeling unwell at all?

The “at all” weakens the implication that they look unwell. Or,

Are you feeling unwell after eating that much?

However, depending on the situation, it could be considered rude (I live in America) to comment on how much someone else ate.

To a child in my family I was trying to teach not to overeat, maybe something like,

Did eating too much make you feel sick?

It definitely sounds judgmental and patronizing, so avoid saying things like that in most situations.

21

The question is ambiguous. It's asking about two facts, and either one could have motivated the question.

If the speaker knows you're unwell, then they're asking whether the cause was eating too much.

But if the speaker doesn't know you're unwell, then they're asking whether you're unwell, and suggesting a cause.

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  • You could give two examples. Jul 10 at 16:40
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica Examples of what?
    – gotube
    Jul 10 at 19:48
  • Errr... of the two uses? E.g. the first one could be at a doctor's office that you visited because you are unwell, so that's a given to the doctor; the second one could be at a party where somebody saw you eat large amounts and then go catch a breath of fresh air, holding your belly. The other guest approaches you. They are not sure you are sick, but they saw what you ate, so it would be conceivable, hence the combined question. Jul 10 at 20:34
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica Anybody can invent a trivial scenario where someone doesn't know you're ill, so I didn't think it was necessary.
    – gotube
    Jul 11 at 2:47
  • 3
    @IvoBeckers it can certainly mean the second option. E.g. Alice just mentioned that she ate to much. Now Bob wants to know whether she's feeling unwell, or just worried about putting on too much weight, or simply wanted to express that the food was so good that she couldn't stop eating. Jul 11 at 11:47
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It assumes you are unwell and is asking whether overeating is the reason for this.

2

It's a classic Groucho situation. Groucho Marx frequently told the joke: Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into them I don't know.

The question is ambiguous.

It could be stating that you are unwell and asking if the cause is eating too much.
It could be stating that you ate too much and asking if it made you unwell.

Then the Groucho version:

It could be asking if you are unwell, and giving the reason for asking the question as "you ate too much."

1
  • That's a bit of a reach. The Groucho joke is based specifically on an ambiguity that isn't really ambiguous at all, because the context makes one of the interpretations essentially impossible (and the joke is then to bring that possibility back in which the listener had already discarded). Whereas the OP's question could legitimately ask either for the reason-for-unwell or cause-of-overeating, so the joke wouldn't work. Jul 11 at 11:40
2

As others have mentioned, it's grammatically ambiguous.

But based on common sense, it almost certainly asks why you're feeling unwell. Either you've already told the other person that you're not feeling well, or it's obvious.

This is because it's not very idiomatic to ask two separate questions at once like that. When mentioning a cause in a question, the question is usually about the cause, not the result. Other answers have shown how we would usually phrase the question if #2 were intended.

1
  1. Explicitly, it assumes you're unwell and is asking simply if the cause is that you ate too much.

  2. Depending on the context: Implicitly, it invites you to clarify that you're well if you're actually well.

0

As punctuated, it asks for the reason you are feeling unwell. The other possible meaning could be unambiguously written as

Are you feeling unwell? Because you ate too much!

To make it truly ambiguous, add a comma:

Are you feeling unwell, because you ate too much?

It is not clear (to me, anyway) which of the two meanings this sentence has.

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