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This is rather an easy question, but left me stuck with it.

Situation: I'm writing a composition about the reading we studied in our book (as a summary). It's about an illiterate senior citizen who ran into trouble when his literate wife went on a trip. He went hungry, so left home to go shopping to buy goods to make himself some dinner.

Dilemma: One of my friends used the statement in the title in his summary. Note that the use of "our" is to give the story a childish sense, and there's no problem with that. However, I argued that it's feasible for the statement above to give the implication that "the old man is buying us and himself dinner"; which will accordingly count as ambiguity and lessen the quality of the sentence. Am I correct? If not, please provide a thorough explanation of why such interpretation of sentence isn't happening.

(Since we're learners, ambiguity isn't called "the beauty of language" for us!)

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  • I don't understand your question.. The sentence looks okay, and I don't understand what ambiguity you see in it. Feb 4 '15 at 15:42
  • The old man attempted to buy stuff to make himself dinner; while I suggested that the sentence could imply that "he bought stuff to make himself and us dinner. Though I might have been wrong, but nothing hurts to ask in here. The sentence is grammatically perfectly correct. The implication is what that's important here.
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 4 '15 at 15:46
  • Do you mean that your concern is whether the use of the possessive pronoun our makes it seem as if we are included in the list of people who will enjoy the dinner the old man has gone to buy victuals for? Feb 4 '15 at 15:55
  • Precisely @CopperKettle.
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 4 '15 at 15:58
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    No, not that precisely. In fact, I originally thought that a combination of "our" and "for dinner" make the sentence to be as ambiguous.
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 4 '15 at 15:59
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The first thing to be careful of is "our old man" can mean "our dad" in some British English dialects. With that said, let's look at the bit of your example you gave:

Our old man is going to buy something for dinner

That sentence doesn't necessarily mean that he's buying something for us as well as himself, but it is ambiguous. Here're a few examples where it can have either meaning:

  1. I'm cooking everyone a meal tonight, but we're out of ingredients. So I sent Susan out to buy something for dinner (Susan's buying for everyone)
  2. Greg won't be eating with us, he's already out buying something for dinner (Greg's buying for himself)
  3. Peter already ate, but he knows we don't have any money so he's gone out to buy something for dinner (Peter's buying for us, and not for himself)

You can't rely on grammar to know what's meant by the speaker, you have to rely on context.

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  • The first thing to be careful of is a nice point actually! +1
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 4 '15 at 16:23
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    +1 - The "old man" ambiguity exists in American English also - so much so that it hadn't occurred to me that you didn't mean father until I read Marik's answer. Normally I wouldn't read "the old man" as father, but seeing "our old man" in the title set me up to misunderstand the body of the question.
    – Adam
    Feb 4 '15 at 16:46
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    Actually, in some BrE dialects 'our old man' can mean 'my father' or 'my husband' - only context is the delineator sometimes. Equally, 'our lass' or 'our kid' can mean sister/girlfriend/wife or brother/husband [though the latter is far less likely]. Worse still... 'the old man' can mean the 'gentleman parts' to put it delicately - though it can also mean 'the boss' or potentially any actual old man;) 'the old girl' also suffers the same meaning drift, grandmother/wife etc etc… even a horse or car. The potential for sitcom amusement opportunities is limitless... Feb 4 '15 at 18:48

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