3

From Oxford Learners Dictionaries

This is the closest we can get to the beach by car.

  1. To the beach, this is the closest [place where] we can get by car.

  2. In all the ways, this is the closest [way in which] we can get to the beach by car.

Which meaning is the original sentence? Is there any ambiguity in the original sentence?

4
  • 2
    This is the closest place (that we can get)to the beach by car.
    – Sam
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 10:05
  • 9
    It means you cannot get any closer to the beach by car.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 19:25
  • 3
    While you are in a car, this is the closest you can get to the beach (presumably because there is not a road that goes directly to the beach.) Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 13:47
  • 2
    To give a different angle on this sentence I like to negate sentences. There is no way we can get closer to the beach by car. Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 14:04

6 Answers 6

22

I find this question confusing, because neither of the sentences given as meanings read as natural English, and I'm not sure what difference is being illustrated.

The sentence can be broken down into a main clause and two qualifiers:

  • This is the closest we can get
  • ... to the beach
  • ... by car

The main clause means simply "we can't get any closer".

There is some context needed for what "this" refers to - it might for instance be someone is pointing at a map ("The place I'm pointing to is the closest we can get") or the conversation my be happening in the car ("The place where we are is the closest we can get").

The first qualifier is answering the question "what can't we get closer to?" "We can't get closer to the beach". The two things which are "close" are the point referred to by "this"and "the beach".

The second qualifier is saying that we might be able to get closer in some way, but not by car. Most likely, we need to get out and walk; but it could be that we need to get a bus, tram, or train.

5
  • Why is not the first natural ? Because of "the place where"?
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 8:18
  • 2
    In "because neither of the sentences given as meanings read as natural English", I have thought it is the usage of "as...as...". But actually, it is not.
    – Mr. Wang
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 8:23
  • 8
    @Mr.Wang "To the beach, ..." isn't a natural way to start a sentence. The order of words and phrases isn't completely flexible in English, so you can't always move a clause to the start in that way. "In all the ways, ..." works a bit better grammatically, but I couldn't make sense of what "way" would mean in context, and that ambiguity you were trying to describe.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 9:06
  • 1
    Technically, "____ we can get" is also a relative clause, so the main clause is just "This is the closest" Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 19:34
  • @A.R. Yes, it's not a very strict grammatical breakdown of the sentence, just an illustration of its meaning.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 17:36
8
  1. To the beach, this is the closest [place where] we can get by car.
  1. In all the ways, this is the closest [way in which] we can get to the beach by car.

The correct meaning is the first. We can firstly understand the meaning of the sentence through context. The situation being described is driving to the beach, and when driving to the beach one would ideally like to park not far from the beach. This is so that we do not have to walk very far to get to the beach from the (parked) car. This is the sense in which native speakers would immediately understand the sentence. Another way of phrasing this would be "we cannot get any closer to the beach by car (i.e., we would have to walk)".

However, it may be that this is not the context of the sentence, and so our immediate assumption is wrong (in this case, a native English speaker would not see ambiguity here, even though there may be). The question here is if the second phrasing of the sentence can make sense. The second phrasing cannot make sense unless sense can be made of "the closest way in which", where here, what is being described as "closest" is the "way". What does it mean for a "way" to be closer than another "way"? We might describe a way as being faster or slower, but we cannot make sense of what it means for a "way" to be closer than another way, and for this reason we can rule out the second phrasing.

2
  • I could reword (1) as "To the beach, this is the closest way among all ways we can get by car." It essentially has the same meaning as (2), supposing that either are understandable. I don't think either is a good starting place for an answer.
    – jpaugh
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 23:12
  • For #2, I agree that it seems illogical to speak of a "closer way". But remember that "close" can in many situations be used to mean "near", and "way" can mean "path". I think there could be a "nearest path which we can follow to get ..." in that the start of the path is nearer to the speaker or to the listener, but "closest we can get ..." could never mean that.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 16:09
8

This (location) is the closest (location) we can get to the beach.

This sentence means that the speaker and listener are close to the beach, and it also means that they are prevented from getting closer.

The exact reason that they are prevented from getting closer is not stated. Maybe the beach is surrounded by private property that cannot be trespassed. Maybe the beach is surrounded by walls or rough terrain that makes it difficult/impossible to get closer.

This is the closest we can get to the beach by car.

This sentence is the exact same, but now "by car" implies why they are prevented from getting closer. It implies that there is no roadway leading to the beach. The car has no (legal) way to drive closer to the beach.

A native speaker would understand that this implies a need to park the car and walk a footpath to the beach.

4

It means that, for some reason, it isn't possible to drive the car any closer to the beach than the location referred to as "this". (presumably meaning "the location the car currently occupies")

Why this is the case has many (mostly not very relevant) possibilities - perhaps there's an obstacle between "here" and the beach that the car isn't capable of crossing to get closer. Perhaps it has been made illegal to drive any closer to the beach. Perhaps the car is broken, so it isn't able to drive any closer to the beach. Perhaps a bridge between "here" and the beach has collapsed, making it impossible to drive the car closer. Perhaps a tree has fallen across the road, preventing cars from getting closer to the beach. Perhaps the beach is at the bottom of a 500 foot high cliff that the car is sitting at the top of. and the list could go on for days. Whatever the reason, it isn't possible to drive the car any closer to the beach from where it is now.

All of which comes together to imply that the ultimate meaning of your initial sentence is:

"If we want to get closer to the beach from here, we have to get out of the car and use some other mode of transportation (walking, riding a horse, catching a shuttle-bus, putting on a parachute and jumping, etc) to do it."

3
  • Well, I'd say the most likely reason is that there isn't a suitable road that goes any closer. Yes, there are more complex possibilities -- like a bridge is out or something. But probably just, there is no road.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 1:47
  • 1
    I can vouch for the interpretation that "We can get closer to the beach, but then the car will sink into the dunes." Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 0:24
  • We came too late and the beach carpark is almost full, we need to carry our stuff or leave it here in the trunk, maybe a half mile now on foot and all the best places taken.
    – civitas
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 15:39
1

Some of the apparent ambiguity is due to the use of this, which somewhat requires some context to resolve. However, the adjective used (close) implies that it might refer to a location.

The superlative closest implies other possibilities which this is to be compared with, and because the superlative refers to closeness, this is implied to be a location (perhaps "here" or an indicated point on a map) and the other possibilities are implied to be other locations, not other means of transport.

For the other meaning one might say

This is the best way we can get close to the beach.

Here the superlative best modifying way (meaning mode of transport) implies the possibility of other modes of transport which are inferior to this (whatever it may be, again based on context). There is some ambiguity though, since way might refer to a chosen route.

The distinction is clearer if you replace the context-invoking this with a specific location/mode:

Parking lot 3 is the closest we can get to the beach by car.

This implies there are other locations reachable by car which are not as close to the beach as parking lot 3 is.

Driving our ATV is the best way we can get close to the beach.

This implies there are other means of transport which are not as good for getting close to the beach as the ATV is. Parking lot 3 may be further from the beach than points reachable by ATV, and this closeness makes the ATV the best choice despite the ATV's downsides (poor drivability on highways, for instance).

One could argue that close does not necessarily imply physical proximity. It could imply some other form of proximity as in pi is close to 3.14, but even in such cases there is sort of a continuum between the "close" value and the "exact" value. There is also some ordering; something can be more or less close. Choice of mode of transport is a discrete choice; one either takes a bus or a train, or perhaps a transfer between them, but never a mix of them at the same in time. There is also no ordering; one cannot really travel "more by bus". For me this precludes using closeness to describe mode of transport.

0

To get somewhere by car is to drive to that place in a car. If it's not possible to get to a location by driving a car, or driving a car there would be dangerous/illegal/against social norms/etc., then English speakers are likely to say "We can't get there by car". "The closest we can get by car" means, of the places that we can get by car, it is the closest.

The term "closest to the beach" is a superlative, and when a superlative is followed by a condition/qualifier/description, then the superlative refers to the most [whatever] that satisfies that condition/qualifier/description. "can get to by car" describes places that one can drive to with a car. What may be throwing you off is that those two phrases are interlaced. It could be reworded as "This is the closest to the beach that we can get to by car."

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .