The sentence is

Some employee must leave.

I was told that it is actually ambiguous and has two meanings. But I can only see one. What are the two meanings?

1 Answer 1


The two senses are specific and non-specific:

Specific: A certain person, who happens to be an employee, must leave. ("Employee" is not in the scope of "must".)

Non-specific: There is a requirement that the person who leaves be an employee. ("Employee" is in the scope of "must".)

Paul Postal observed that the vowel of "some" can be reduced to schwa only in the specific sense, in such examples.

  • I agree on the specific vs. non-specific reading, but intuitively I'd rather paraphrase the non-specific reading as "At least one of the employees must leave (but it's not definite who)". Maybe the difference is in focus: To point out the non-specificness, I'd put focus/stress on "some" (which goes in line with the non-reducibility of the vowel), while your paraphrase seems to suggest focus on "employee". The difference is subtle, though. Apr 26, 2019 at 8:24
  • There is of course also the deontic/epistemic ambiguity of must, which is dependent on context in a short sentence like this one. I think the deontic reading is more prominent because it's triggered by the meaning of employee; but it could certainly be a logical deduction. As with Smith's murderer is insane, Sherlock Holmes is your friend.
    – jlawler
    Apr 26, 2019 at 16:17

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