two men think of different things when they hear the word mouse A single word can have multiple meanings depending upon how it is used. Some can even be nouns, verbs or adjectives depending upon their use. This is one reason why machine translation often misses the mark; machines can’t decipher context.

This is also why we advise software developers to provide context for the software strings they send us, and we also advise clients to provide any necessary context for terms that appear in specialized glossaries that will be used by translators.

The problem of multiple meanings doesn’t exist only in English, but some people think that it’s more common in this language. I could certainly give lots of examples of homographs (words that are spelled the same but mean different things). Luckily someone else did it for me.

A friend of mine recently forwarded an email that has been making the rounds with this list of sentences showing just what a difference context can make when it comes to understanding the real meaning of a word:

  1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
  2. The farm was used to produce produce.
  3. The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  4. We must polish the Polish.
  5. He could lead if he would get the lead.
  6. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  7. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
  8. bass was painted on the head of the bass.
  9. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
  10. I did not object to the object.
  11. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  12. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
  13. They were too close to the door to close it.
  14. The buck does funny things when the does are present.
  15. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer.
  16. To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  17. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
  18. Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
  19. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
  20. How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

With thanks to whoever started this email chain.

Feel free to add your examples in the comments.