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I read several times that an expression such as "X wa Y ga suki desu", where say both X and Y are people, is inherently ambiguous and can be understood as either "X likes Y" or "Y likes X", according to the context.

If that's correct, then I'm wondering how that ambiguity is "felt" grammatically in terms of the meaning of suki. As I understand it, suki is a na-adjective that simply means "liked" or "preferred". If "X wa Y ga suki desu" is ambiguous, is "suki-na X" also ambiguous? Can it mean not only "X that is liked" but also "liked by X"?

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"X wa Y ga suki desu" always means "X likes Y" unless you're in a very special context.

It's actually theoretically possible that this effectively means "Y likes X" in a certain special context where ga works as the exhaustive-listing marker (See this question for exhaustive-lisging ga):

A: I know either Y or Z likes X. Which? Who likes X?
B: X wa Y ga suki desu. (It's Y who likes X.)

B's answer would be pronounced with a different intonation from the normal "X wa Y ga suki desu".

Nevertheless, people will rarely make a question like this, and I don't know if this really is what you have read. And even when people make such a question, I doubt you would ever hear an answer like this actually used in real life. There is a better, clearer way to put this. This answer would be far more natural when said like this:

B: X no koto wa Y ga suki desu. (It's Y who likes X.)


A similar expression can also be ambiguous when it forms a relative clause. I think these pages answers your question about "suki-na X":

  • I don't find it "rare" that we use ambiguous forms like "X ga suki-na no wa Y da" and leave it to the context which it means. – user4092 Nov 7 '16 at 7:20

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