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How do natives interpret the following sentence? Does it mean Japan was the first place where the disease appeared, or the first case of the disease in Japan appeared in 1850, whether or not the disease had previously made its appearance in other countries?

The disease first appeared in Japan in 1850.

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  • I would assume the first meaning unless mention had already been made of its occurrence in other countries. Sep 19, 2022 at 13:59
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    Why don't you tell us what disease? Sep 19, 2022 at 14:12
  • Assuming the second meaning, you could effectively resolve the ambiguity by resequencing to In Japan, the disease first appeared in 1850. For the first meaning, perhaps The disease appeared first in Japan in 1850 (or ...in 1850 in Japan - it's primarily the position of first that encourages a specific interpretation). Sep 19, 2022 at 17:10

2 Answers 2

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It is ambiguous. Without any other context I'd guess that it had never appeared anywhere else. But a little context could easily change my interpretation.

The ambiguity would rarely be a problem in any real situation, as there would normally be context.

The disease spread East during the Middle Ages and first appeared in Japan in 1850.

The disease first appeared in Japan in 1850, and from there rapidly spread to both the rest of Asia and to South America.

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It could mean either one. It would take additional context to distinguish the two possibilities.

If no other country was mentioned first, I would assume the first meaning.

I would not assume the second meaning unless other countries were mentioned first.

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  • "Context" must be taken very broadly to include shared background knowledge. The following is the first sentence in a journal article: Since COVID-19 first appeared in the United States (US) in January 2020, US states have pursued a wide range of policies to mitigate the spread of the virus and its economic ramifications.
    – Apollyon
    Sep 21, 2022 at 13:41
  • No other country is mentioned prior to that, but the meaning, "the US is the first country where COVID-19 appeared" is not intended here.
    – Apollyon
    Sep 21, 2022 at 13:43

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