contributed by: Helena Jeret-Mäe, Joep Schuurkes


Words mean different things to different people. And when we string words together into sentences, it gets only worse. So it’s important to be aware of the many different interpretations people might give to one and the same sentence.

A good way to explore these different meanings is play of words. Of the many many options we selected the “Mary had a little lamb.”-heuristic. By stressing different words in a sentence, different interpretations arise:

Statement In contrast to
Mary​ had a little lamb … it was hers, not someone else’s
Mary had​ a little lamb … but she doesn’t have it anymore
Mary had ​a little lamb … just one, not several
Mary had a little​ lamb … it was very, very small
Mary had a little ​ lamb … not a goat, a chicken, etc
Mary had​ a little lamb … but John still has his

And note that we didn’t even yet go into the different possible meanings of “to have”:

As you can see, a lot of different meanings can be found in this simple five-word sentence - if you look for them.


Apply “Mary had a little lamb” to the second sentence of this quote: “You can add reminders in Google Calendar. Reminders carry over to the next day until you mark them as done. For example, if you create a reminder to make a restaurant reservation, you’ll see the reminder each day until you mark it as done.” -

Stress different words or groups of words and come up with at least 10 different interpretations.


  1. Has your interpretation of the sentence become richer through this exercise?
  2. How different could two implementations be, if their developers did not share all of these interpretations?
  3. Based on your different interpretations, where do you think are good places to look for bugs?