It has often struck me that the phrase “fight with” is ambiguous and wondered how foreign learners of English cope with it, but I don’t recall seeing such a glaring example of the ambiguity as this line from the (very interesting) NY Times obituary (by Margalit Fox) of a poet I wasn’t familiar with, Emanuel Litvinoff: “Emanuel’s father returned there to fight with the Bolsheviks and was never heard from again.”
I’m guessing they mean “to fight on the Bolshevik side,” since he’d fled czarist pogroms, but an editor should have caught that. Or perhaps I’m wrong about the ambiguity? Do other English-speakers feel it has a clear meaning here?


  1. I would never use “fight with” in the sense of “fight against” except in reference to interpersonal quarreling. (“He fights with his Mom all the time.”) In larger political contexts it always means “fight alongside.” But maybe that’s just my idiolect?

  2. I agree with Dale.
    Note that with originally meant ‘against’, as in withstand; see the Etymonline entry.

  3. The same Etymonline entry you cite suggests (although not explicitly) that “fight with” may have been a calque of Latin pugnare cum. Presumably the “fight against” sense is meant, since I believe that’s what the Latin meant.

  4. Hmmm.. my first though was that the father was on the opposite side, and died/disappeared while fighting the Bolshevik side. I didn’t realize there was the other option until I read further.
    But then, Hubby and I disagree on a great number of preposition uses and idioms. Perhaps a product him being from the north, and me the south?

  5. Jan Freeman says

    Agree with Dale and John: “fight the Bolsheviks” would mean “oppose,” but “fight with” is “alongside” except in domestic quarrels. (PS: I think you didn’t finish rewriting your first sentence?)

  6. I think my default reading would be “fight alongside” unless the context somehow indicated otherwise. As Dale Favier said, in the context of interpersonal quarreling it’s pretty unambiguous, because you usually have just two participants. In larger conflicts, it’s usually the opposite, I think. But it is pretty odd that such a basic word could have such opposite readings.

  7. John Emerson says

    Georg Simmel “On Flirting”: When a woman flirts “with” one man in order to flirt with another who is the actual object of her attention, the double meaning of the word “with” is profoundly revealed.
    Not quite the same thing, but it happened to come up. Translated from German.

  8. Translated from German. But German “mit” might not quite be able to match English “with” for built-in ambiguity, given that “with” (as Etymonline just taught me) is a word akin to German “wider” and “wieder” that somehow supplanted the English cognate (“mid”) of “mit”.

  9. josef_kaye says

    I’ve lived all my life happily finding the meaning clear from context (don’t ask why or how) until you posted this. You bastard! 🙂

  10. I, too, agree with Dale Favier — in this case. Sometimes “larger political contexts” can still amount to interpersonal quarreling, though; for example, I find no problem with “… fighting with Republicans over …”.

  11. JE: [Simmel on flirting] Not quite the same thing
    The Simmel quote:

    When a woman flirts “with” one man in order to flirt with another who is the actual object of her attention, the double meaning of the word “with” is profoundly revealed.

    has been truncated, thus obscuring its sense. It is not at all related to the discussion of “with” here as in “fight with”, meaning “on the same side as” or “against”. The full quote from Philosophische Kultur is:

    Indem die Frau “mit” einem Manne kokettiert, um dadurch mit einem andern, auf den es in Wirklichkeit abgesehen ist, zu kokettieren, offenbart sich der eigentümliche Tiefsinn, der in der Doppelbedeutung des “mit” liegt: einerseits das Werkzeug, andrerseits den Partner einer Korrelation zu bezeichnen – als könne man einen Menschen überhaupt nicht zum bloßen Mittel machen, ohne dass dies zugleich Rückwirkung und Wechselbeziehung wäre.

    Here mit einem Mann” means “flirting with him” but also “using him as a tool” (the actual goal is to flirt with the second man). In the scenario imagined by Simmel, mit einem Mann kokettieren (um sich für einen anderen interessant zu machen) has neither the sense of “fight with” nor “fight against”.
    The WiPe on Koketterie claims that Simmel “devoted a separate chapter to flirting” in Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung . I couldn’t find such a chapter there. The passage quoted is in Philosophische Kultur as linked above.

  12. Gassalasca says

    Is something like this possible in Russian as well?
    I ask because in Serbian it certainly is: boriti se sa vs. boriti se protiv. Although I imagine virtually every journalist would use protiv in order to avoid the possible confusion.

  13. Same happens in Hebrew.
    I posted about it last year:עם-זאת/

  14. I ask because in Serbian it certainly is: boriti se sa vs. boriti se protiv
    Being passionate about Romanian, I like coming across words with a Slavic origin. Not so much seeing them in their Romanian form, but just randomly coming across them in one of the Slavic languages and recognizing the word.
    Having said that, is “protiv” the Serbian word for “against”? Similar to the Romanian împotriva meaning the same thing.

  15. I think the ambiguity is inherent in the preposition itself, in English and in Russian (с/со), and, I see in Serbian. Its meaning is both with (together) and against. Could there be an yin/yang source for that?
    I practical terms, of course, it is a matter for the author/editor to see to it that there is no ambiguity.
    Example of ambiguity: fight with the bolsheviks – бороться с большевиками . The first reading would probably be ‘against’ as in пошел к белым бороться с большевиками – joined the Whites to fight with (against) the bolsheviks, but пошел бороться с большевиками против зеленых – ‘went to fight with (alongside) the bolsheviks against the greens’ shows that there is room for opposite readings.

  16. In the context you give, I can’t imagine any other interpretation. The opposite would be “fight against the Bolsheviks”.
    The other meaning of “with”, it seems to me, can only apply to a very small number of people, like “he continually fought with his father and his brother”. Although you could say “The Confederacy was spoiling for a fight with the Yankees” (two entities).
    I admit it must be challenging for learners. It’s yet another example of how, in Indo-European languages anyway, prepositions are the most unruly part of speech.

  17. michael farris says

    For me the ambiguity is definitely there as ‘fight with’ can mean both ‘fight against’ or ‘fight alongside’.
    Most of the time context makes it clear enough though sometimes the context is clearer to the sender than to the addressee. In other words, it’s a pretty typical language phenomenon.

  18. is “protiv” the Serbian word for “against”?
    Yes, it’s common Slavic (same word in Russian); the Romanian is clearly borrowed.

  19. In boyhood, fighting “with” always meant “against”: I suppose that was unambiguous because fighting was (in my wee world) single combat. Perhaps “fighting with” inside a family is a continuation of that childish usage?

  20. I agree with Jan Freeman – “fight with” to me always means “fight against.” To say “fight on the same side” I’d say “fight alongside.”

  21. >The other meaning of “with”, it seems to me, can only apply to a very small number of people, like “he continually fought with his father and his brother”.

  22. I remember noticing an example of this in a history book I had as a child, about “Moorish horsemen who fight with the Roman army”. I’m still not sure which side they were on.
    I agree with several commenters above that the NY Times example can really only refer to fighting with[=alongside] the Bolsheviks, but I’m not sure I agree on exactly what the distinction is. Certainly “fight with[=against]” often refers to personal quarelling, but I don’t think it’s limited to it.
    Possibly there’s a requirement that the antagonists be roughly equal – I don’t feel that an individual person can fight with[=against] the Bolsheviks, but another faction probably could.

  23. Might it imply, that “with” in these contexts is a temporal thing, and it “just” means “fighting at the same time as” [or flirting at the same time as…or…] and the partisanship of the [verb]er is only inferred from the imagined goal of the contemporary named group?
    I think I got too polysyllabic there, but I think somebody with the right vocabulary might help? It’s an hypothesis.

  24. J. W. Brewer says

    When I started typing “fought with” into the google search box, its very first autocomplete suggestion was, rather to my surprise, “fought with beasts at ephesus.” This turns out to be a reference to 1 Cor. 15:32, and I take it we are to understand St. Paul to have been fighting against, rather than alongside, the beasts in question.
    Note the ironic contrast between Litvinoff’s pere’s apparent desire to contribute to Bolshevik victory and Litvinoff fils’ concern three decades and change down the road about the unhappy plight of Jews living under actual Communist rule.

  25. And here’s another complication – there are two meanings of plain “fight-“so just when you thought it was safe to distinguish “fight the Yankees’ from “fight with the Yankees”….
    In the Army, and I am pretty sure this is purely officer jargon, there used to be (and may still be) a causative sense of “fight” as in “We have to decide how we are going to fight the Abrams” meaning “We have to formulate doctrine on how to deploy and employ the Abrams in battle.” = “how to have the crew and the weapon system fight”
    It is similar to the causative sense of “communicate” in the Anglican Church (at least) where it means to adminster Communion to someone (and thereby help them communicate with Jesus).

  26. I agree with Dale, with Ran’s adjustment. I think the issue is the scale of the sides – I fight with my brother, the Democrats fight with the Republicans, the Roman army fights with the Carthaginian army. However, a smaller unit “fighting with” a larger unit generally means “joining up”, or fighting alongside. If the opponents are of different scale, then the “with” should be dropped, or replaced with “against” – “the Spartans fought the Persian Army”, or “the Spartans fought against the Persian Army”.

  27. marie-lucie says

    I think Anthony has a point: the key to the meaning of “which” lies in whether the adversaries are equal in power or not. Similarly in French:
    1 Il s’est battu avec son frère
    a) He fought with (= against) his brother (most likely interpretation)
    b) He fought alongside his brother (only if the context makes it clear).
    2 Il s’est battu avec les bolcheviques
    a) He fought against the Bolsheviks (eg as the leader of the opposing faction, not as an average citizen)
    b) He fought on the Bolshevik side (possible if the context allows it), but 6 would be better.
    3 Il s’est battu avec son frère contre les bolcheviques
    He fought with (= alongside) his brother against the Bolsheviks.
    Here, in both languages the sentence is a “garden path” one, since “avec” or “with” seems to mean ‘against’ until the rest of the sentence shows that it meant ‘together with’. A good writer would rephrase this sentence, as 8 or 9.
    But French also has another verb meaning ‘to fight’, which makes “avec” unambiguous:
    4 Il a combattu les bolcheviques
    He fought the Bolsheviks (probably as their political opponent).
    5 Il a combattu avec son frère
    He fought alongside his brother, together with his brother.
    6 Il a combattu avec les bolcheviques
    He fought with (= alongside) the Bolsheviks.
    7 Il a combattu contre les bolcheviques
    He fought against the Bolsheviks (politically or physically).
    8 Il a combattu avec son frère contre les bolcheviques)
    He fought with (= alongside) his brother against the Bolsheviks.
    9 Il a combattu les bolcheviques avec son frère
    He fought the Bolsheviks with (= alongside) his brother.

  28. I think Anthony’s right and it has to do with what is involved in “with” – parity.

  29. “Привет освободителям города от немецко-фашистских захватчиков!”
    Roughly ‘Salute to the liberators from Nazi oppressors’, a real (?) war-time slogan.

  30. in Italian we have the same ambiguity: “combattere con” = “to fight with” both in the meaning of “to fight on the side of” and “to fight against” so we can cope with that pretty naturally.

  31. John Cowan says

    Fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus, where κατὰ can only mean ‘against’. But what kind of fighting is meant, and who the wild beasts are, is a question: see our discussion at that link.

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