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Fyrius's avatar

A question for the native English speakers?

Asked by Fyrius (14506 points ) May 25th, 2009

(Is it possible at all to make that question mark go away? I can insert my own question marks when I need them.)

I need some simple native speaker’s judgements on two sentences, for a semantics assignment.

Suppose we’re talking about three people, let’s say Ines, Garcin and Estelle. They all want to read one specific book, but not the same book. Ines wants to read No Exit, Garcin wants to read Hyperion and Estelle wants to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In this situation, if I would say “everybody wants to read a certain book”, would that be true?
I know it would be true if all three would want to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but I want to know if the other reading is possible too.

Another question:
In a context consisting of a number of guys who all have mothers writing books but who are not siblings, does the sentence “everyone wants to read a certain book his mom wrote” make any sense?

Thanks for your time.

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29 Answers

jackfright's avatar

both seem technically true, but phrased in a way likely to get misunderstood.
you might want to reconsider the usage of the word “certain” in those statements.

shrubbery's avatar

I like the first one better than the second one. To me the first one indicates everyone wants to read their own certain book, a different certain book for each person, that’s how I read it. But the second, I read it as everyone wanting to read a book that one person’s mum wrote, and although I don’t know who “he” is. my brain has just assumed that in context I would already know this or would be about to find out. But just reading it, I wouldn’t assume that more than one person’s mum had written a book. I don’t know why, but that’s how I read them, even though they follow the same sort of pattern. Maybe I’m just weird and you shouldn’t listen to me.

augustlan's avatar

In the first case, I’d use ‘particular’ instead of ‘certain’. In the second case, try something like “Each wants to read the book his own mother wrote.”

shrubbery's avatar

@augustlan, for some reason, when I read the sentence with particular instead of certain I actually think of everyone wanting to read the same book instead of different ones. Am I back to front? :P

jackfright's avatar

@shrubbery i agree, using “particular” or “certain” both imply a singular/specific book, which could lead to confusion.

using “own” as augustlan said helps; “everyone wants to read a book his/their own mother wrote.”

alive's avatar

i would say “everybody wants to read a different book.” or maybe “everyone wants to read a separate book.”

does certain have to be in the sentences? i think certain in its proper usage is more like “i am certain of ___” not how you are using it to talk about a certain object.

like augustlan i think that “particular” is more correct.

the thing about native speakers is you can say many things interchangeably and we will know what you mean (i.e. certain, particular, specific, different etc) but we do not know the grammar rules as to why one word is the CORRECT word and the others are not.

so yes, certain makes sense to us, but it might not be correct according to english grammar rules.

Bluefreedom's avatar

How about “Everyone would like to read a different book.”

And, perhaps, “Everyone would like to read different books that were authored (written?) by their mothers.”

Edit: I just read @augustlan‘s answer for the second sentence and her suggestion is very good. Far superior to mine I think.

dynamicduo's avatar

It is technically correct although it is a bit misleading and would likely cause confusion. “A certain” gives the impression that the book is the same, because if the books were not the same a more obvious word would be used.

Most English speakers would reduce the sentence in complexity to increase clarification in lieu of using this form. “each wanted to read a different book”, “everyone wanted to read their own book”, “each wanted to read a certain book” could be used due to “each” instead of “everybody” although in my mind this is still a bit confusing.

whatthefluther's avatar

I’ve read everyone’s answer twice and I think I’m getting dizzy. Although this may be a repeat of what someone else said (many apologies if this is the case), I would go with:
1. each wants to read a different book
2. each wants to read the book written by his own mother
I hope this helps, although I’m not sure (the more I read the second one, the more nervous I am about the grammar). My best suggestion is to address your question to @gailcalled, our fluther grammarian. I would trust her for the last word on the subject. Good luck and see ya…wtf

ragingloli's avatar

You will find ambiguity in any language, some more than others. The sentences in themselves may not be enough to express the situation accurately, but that is where context comes into play.
They are still correct though

Fyrius's avatar

I see.
So while this reading is possible, it’s not really natural.

@shrubbery: Haha, no, you’re making perfect sense. Thank you.
The reading for “he” as a single established person is a complication I actually managed to completely forget about…

As a side note, I’m not asking for advice on how to express this. I’m specifically asking if the sentences I used would be suitable. I’m asking this as a scholar, investigating how language speakers interpret a sentence. The presence of the word “certain” is important to what I’m trying to find out.
As another side note, with all due respect to @gailcalled, a grammarian would be least suited to give a native speaker’s judgement. It needs to be intuitive, natural, preferably uninfluenced by extensive knowledge of the rules.

Kayak8's avatar

@whatthefluther
You are correct, for clarity to the reader, the word should be “each” in both sentences and NOT “everybody.”

For the second question, “each wants to read a certain book written by his mother” is accurate. This differentiates the statement from “each wants to read a certain book written by their mother” which would be used to describe brothers.

The word certain can be used correctly in both phrases if “each” [singular] is substituted for everybody [inherently plural].

whatthefluther's avatar

@Kayak8…Thank you for restoring my confidence…wtf

Fyrius's avatar

@whatthefluther, @Kayak8: You make a good and very observant point. Thank you.

jeffgoldblumsprivatefacilities's avatar

False! Because there are no English speakers named Ines or Garcin.

Kayak8's avatar

<——-Ines—

Bobbydavid's avatar

Both correct except the mom in second question. It is mum not mom.

Bobbydavid's avatar

Oh yes, the question states “native” English speakers and as I’m English I so qualify dude!!!

AstroChuck's avatar

And let me say I love Estelle’s taste in literature.

Bobbydavid's avatar

Estelle? We extradited her some time ago

breedmitch's avatar

Lose “everybody” in both sentences. Replace with “each”.

Jeruba's avatar

I would understand “Everybody wants to read a certain book” as meaning that all those indicated by “everybody” were interested in reading the same book.

If the writer intended another meaning, I would recommend recasting the sentence without “everybody” and definitely without “certain,” which has the implication of “specific” or “specifiable”—that is, you can name it. There’s just one, and you know what it is.

As an editor, I would consider “Everyone wants to read a certain book his mom wrote” to be ambiguous. I would ask “Whose mom?” I would not suspect that it meant that each of the individuals was wanting to read a different book written by his or her respective mother. Clarity would require rewriting; for example, “Each person wants to read the book written by his or her mother.” (This is a good place to use the passive. In active voice I would use “has written,” not “wrote.”)

I would also suggest changing “mom” to “mother” because “mom” is a familiar term of endearment used within a personal relationship and “mother” is a common noun; but I recognize that most Americans think of it as a generic term, probably thanks mostly to the pervasiveness of advertising.

phoenyx's avatar

<protip>
A question mark is assumed, but isn’t forced. If you put other terminating punctuation at the end such as ”!” or ”.” you won’t get a question mark. For example, you could have written: “A question for the native English speakers.” and it wouldn’t have had a question mark at the end.
</protip>

Jack79's avatar

Even though both sentences are technically correct, they can be confusing. I try to avoid such wording altogether, in order to be on the safe side.

So I would rather say something like “everybody wants to read a different book”, since the word “wants” automatically implies that there is a choice involved (ie a specific book that they want to read).

As for the second sentence, which statistically is unique, I’d first explain that there’s these bunch of guys whose mothers are authors, and that “they each want to read a book their mum wrote”, which helps the other person understand that we’re talking about many mothers and not one.

But these are unusual circumstances, so clarification would be needed anyway.

Darwin's avatar

“Everybody wants to read a certain book” sounds as if they are all in line for Harry Potter or whatever the latest fad book is.

I offer up “Everybody wants to read a different book.” To me this means each person wants to read a particular book, but not the same book.

For the second example I like Jeruba’s offering: “Each person wants to read the book written by his or her mother.”

scantor's avatar

I’m fine with the first sentence (Everyone wants to read a certain book), but the second is bad for me because of the word his – to me, his can only refer to a specific (known) person, and their must be used to indicate ambiguity.

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