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Consider:

学生のようだ。

Without additional context can this statement mean both:

  1. He looks like a student. i.e. he has the stereotypical appearance of a student; he's wearing glasses, has a studious look, and appears not to have washed for a week. It could be that I know he is not a student. I'm just saying that he looks like one.
  2. He seems to be a student. i.e. judging by the evidence I believe that he is in fact a student. He doesn't necessarily have the appearance of a student, but the evidence points to him being one.

Can we rule out either of these possibilities grammatically, or is it purely down to context?

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  • Alternatively, the English expressions are also ambiguous: He seems like a student vs. He looks like a student. Without more context, we don't know if the speaker is talking purely about visual appearance, or about status. Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 0:24

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It purely depends on the context.

のようだ could mean "it appears like...", "it looks like...", "it seems like...", or even "it sounds like...".

But nobody uses のようだ without any context, so you usually know what the things that make "it" seem like XX are.

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