1. That is the shirt I want to give to John.

Could that sentence mean:

a) That is the shirt I want in order to give it to John.

b) That is the shirt I want so that I can give it to John.

Obviously, 1. could mean: I want to give a shirt to John and that is the shirt is the one I want to give to him.

But could it mean the same as (a) and (b)?

  • 1
    Can you find a more sensible way of numbering sentences than a, 1, 1a? Maybe 1, 2, 3? Also indent them consistently.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 1, 2023 at 11:35
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    I have clarified that there are two interpretations, a) and b). I agree with Stuart the listing system used by the OP was a little confusing and inconsistent.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 1, 2023 at 11:44
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    @Mari-LouA I see no difference between a) and b), How are "in order to give" and "so that I can give" different? Nov 1, 2023 at 18:55
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    @TimR I didn't change the OP's sentences, I only clarified that these are (a) and (b) before "a" was the original sentence 1 was the first interpretation and 1a was the second. Please look at the edit history.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 1, 2023 at 19:05
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    Ah, you've labeled the two as if they were distinct, though they are not. Thanks for the "clarification". :-) Nov 1, 2023 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


Like many sentences, it is formally ambiguous, but rarely so in reality.

The most obvious meaning to me is neither of yours, but a third one:

I want to give a shirt to John, and that is the shirt I want to give.

This is different from either of your two, because it does not imply "I want that shirt". It is the giving that I want, not the shirt.


Let's play the sentences in slo-mo, so to speak, where ... means a syntactic break/pause:

That's the shirt I want ... to give to John.

That's the shirt ... I want to give to John.

In the first one, you don't have the shirt. You lack it.

In the second, we don't know whether you have the shirt or not. You're just pointing it out to someone. All we know is that it's somewhere you can point to it or to its picture.

In both sentences, your intention is to give the shirt to John.

We could punctuate the sentences differently:

That's the shirt I want -- to give to John.

That's the shirt (that) I want to give to John.

With the first sentence, "to give to John" is disjunct. It's a tacked on bit. And it's elliptical: you're stating the reason why you want it, and part of that statement is tacit. The second sentence is a main clause with a relative clause.

In live speech, the syntactic break separating disjunct elements is more marked than the syntactic break separating a main clause and defining relative clause. The large dash indicates the disjunct break.


It's possible for the sentence to be parsed to mean:

I want that shirt, and the purpose of wanting that shirt is so I can give it to John.

It's a very odd meaning because it means that merely wanting the shirt would allow me to give it to John.

"In order to" and "so that I can" have the same meaning in this context, so your two definitions a) and b) have the same meaning too.

That said, a listener is so highly likely to understand this sentence with the "obvious" meaning that using it with your suggested other meaning above would be a bad idea. If that's the meaning you want, then you should word it as clearly as I have.

  • Thank you very much, I understand that the obvious meaning of (a) is the one that would be readily understood. That I should use (a) only for that purpose. But there is something I am not sure I get. Are you saying that the sentences 1 and 1a could not mean that I want to have it so that I can give it to John? Do they mean that my wanting would magically transfer the shirt to John?
    – azz
    Nov 1, 2023 at 7:20
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    It would be a highly unnatural way to express that meaning. We might say "That is the shirt I want for John's present", or, more likely "That's the shirt I'm going to get/buy for John". Nov 1, 2023 at 8:33
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    @azz You didn't ask whether a and b could have that meaning. You asked whether a) and b) were possible readings of the original sentence. What do you actually want to know?
    – gotube
    Nov 2, 2023 at 6:24
  • Thank you very much, gotube, My second question was prompted by your reply. I thought you were saying that (a), (b) and also (1) meant that my wanting the shirt would somehow allow me to give it to John, so I asked what (a) and (b) meant to you.
    – azz
    Nov 2, 2023 at 10:26
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    @azz I would understand those two as awful ways of saying the obvious meaning. That meaning is so obvious, and the actual parsed meaning of (a) and (b) is so ridiculous that I'd always expect it was a mistake.
    – gotube
    Nov 4, 2023 at 3:30

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