W: I like your sports shoes very much. How much were they?
M: 70 dollars. I got them on sale. They were 30% off.

What was the original price of the new shoes?
A. 120 dollars. B. 70 dollars. C. 100 dollars D. 91 dollars

Interpretation one: the original price was $70, but I bought them for 30% off.
Interpretation two: I bought them for $70, which is 30 percentage off the original price.

I think the second one is more likely, but is the first one totally impossible?

  • 10
    How much were they means what did you pay, not originally. "They were $70 on sale, 30% off." The original price was $100. Mar 11 at 4:44
  • 15
    Technically ambiguous, but normally understood to mean you paid $70. On the other hand, if the second line had been "70 dollars, but I got them on sale" the original price would have been the $70.
    – Peter
    Mar 11 at 6:39
  • 4
    Your 'interpretation two' should read "I bought them for $70, which is 30% less than the original price". Mar 11 at 9:09
  • 5
    It is ambiguous. If someone asks the price of something, it's reasonable to give the standard price or the price they would have to pay. it doesn't necessarily denote the amount the speaker paid. Especially if you got some special or non-standard discount. Certainly you could say "How much were the shoes?" "$70. But I used my staff discount so they were only $35."
    – Stuart F
    Mar 11 at 10:22
  • 2
    Well, I would prefer "30% off the original price" (for off of, see this question. Mar 11 at 14:07

2 Answers 2


There's clear context here - the question is preceded by the statement "I like your shoes". The pronoun 'they' in the question must refer to that particular pair, because 'they' always refers to things previously mentioned. Secondly, the past tense verb, 'were', is used in the question before the respondent mentions the sale, so there is no reason to think that the question is looking for the pre-sale price. They want to know how much the person paid for that particular pair.

The same logic has to be applied to the answer - the respondent gives the asker exactly what they want, so $70 is the price they paid. In an entirely separate sentence, they mention that was a sale price. Then, in a third separate sentence, they tell them how much the discount was. So, the original price of the shoes was $100, and $70 was paid in the sale.

  • 6
    I disagree that this is clear from the language. I'd tend to lean toward your interpretation, but I can easily see someone meaning that the regular price was $70, but they got the shoes at 30% off from that. However, it is clear from the math context, because $49 is not one of the options available. Mar 11 at 21:50
  • 10
    Oh no, I follow the logic just fine. I simply don't accept it. You're reading much more into the specific word choices than is reliable for a casual conversation. Mar 11 at 21:53
  • 4
    @JohnBollinger Why would you be looking for $49 as an answer choice? The question is the original price. So in the scenario you "can easily see", the answer would be (B) $70.
    – nanoman
    Mar 12 at 5:00
  • 2
    This is not a valid argument. You can tell this, because replacing "and" with "but" doesn't specifically counter anything in this argument ... but changes the primary interpretation of the sentence (it's still ambiguous but it now leans in the other direction).
    – Brondahl
    Mar 12 at 6:46
  • 1
    @barbecue These arguments are like trying to prove that 2+2=5. No native speaker with half a brain would make a statement as misleading as you suggest. Why would you want to mislead English learners reading this? If something is true 99% of the time, that's what you teach, not the 1% outcome.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 13 at 8:27

Both interpretations are possible. Normally I'd assume the person meant that he paid $70, i.e. that that is the price after getting 30% off, so that the original price was $100.

As a math question, the only plausible interpretation is that $70 is the price after the discount. If it was the original price, than the question is trivial. "The original price was $70. What was the original price?" Well, duh. So I'd interpret the question to mean that the sale price is $70. Well, I suppose it could be intended to be a trick question. But probably not.

  • 4
    I can't agree with the statement that both interpretations are possible at all. You'd have to strip away all context beyond a simple question and an answer, as well as completely change the construction and punctuation of the answer in order to create the ambiguity needed for any other interpretation. The only astute observation here is that this is a maths question. Seems to me the OP got it wrong and they are turning to English grammar in order to prove that 2+2=5.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 11 at 12:13
  • 2
    I have to agree with @Astralbee here. A native speaker, presenting the alternative interpretation, would say something line "$70, but they were 30% off so I only paid $49."
    – tsc_chazz
    Mar 11 at 22:41
  • @Astralbee Well, I think the interpretation that $70 was the original price is POSSIBLE. If I had this conversation with someone and I really cared, I'd ask, "Do you mean the original price was $70 or that the sale price was $70?" But if that interpretation would never occur to you, okay fine, not worth arguing about.
    – Jay
    Mar 12 at 7:19
  • Was this a math question, or a multiple-choice English comprehension question? Either way 100$ is the most likely interpretation for the pre-sale price, if we assume the speaker is precise and careful in their use of language. Mar 12 at 16:41
  • This is utterly wrong. "W: How much were they?" "M: 70 dollars." That's how much you paid for them. Nobody says "I paid the full price" when you buy something on sale. You say you paid what you actually paid.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 13 at 15:17

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