In a list, how do you know what an adjective applies to? For example, I could say "I like warm brownies, hot tea, and cold smoothies." Obviously, there, warm applies to brownies, etc.. But if I wanted to say that I liked warm brownies, warm tea, and warm coffee, I could say "I like warm brownies, tea, and coffee", and it could be interpreted that warm applied to all the items in the list. So how do you know what the adjective applies to? In the second example, I might have been saying that I like warm brownies and tea in general, no matter the temperature. So how do you know?

  • 1
    In my opinion as a native speaker, you don't know exactly what the adjectives apply to. It's inherently ambiguous. If you want to be really specific, you have to rearrange your sentence, like "I like tea and warm brownies."
    – stangdon
    May 12 '17 at 1:00
  • Agreed. To me, "tea and coffee" is a strong, cliched phrase that I hear by itself - I don't consider that "warm" would apply to it. (Because tea and coffee are always hot). If you said, "I like warm brownies, beds and puppies", I'd probably think you intend warm to apply to all of them. And if you said, "I like warm brownies, apple pie and ice creams", I'd be a bit confused. May 12 '17 at 1:37

I like warm brownies, tea, and coffee.

I interpret this as "... [warm brownies], [tea], and [coffee]."

I think you're now crossing into the realm of writing with good style. Your example is an excellent demonstration of its necessity. If the first element in your list is of the form "[adjective] [noun]", you should continue your list in that form. This is why "I like warm brownies, hot tea, and cold smoothies" sounds great, and "I like warm brownies, tea, and coffee" leaves me wondering what kind of tea and coffee you like.

If you want to specify that your brownies must be warm but not your tea and coffee, you can say "I like tea, coffee, and warm brownies."

I personally can't think of an elegant way to say "I like brownies, tea, and coffee" and specify that all three of them must strictly be "warm." In any case, I don't think you should as it's not really an interesting sentence.

  • 1
    Actually, saying it isn't too hard. You just keep the intonation up on "brownies" and "tea" and only drop it on "coffee" to allow the adjective to apply to all three. Writing it is hard. :) Jun 16 '17 at 13:57
  • I see what you did there :) Although, for me, that intonation actually feels like it implies the original case where "warm" only describes "brownies" but not "coffee" or "tea..."
    – dkv
    Jun 16 '17 at 15:58
  • Hmm... You know, it's very hard to describe intonation in writing. Here's a recording where "warm" applies to all three, and here's one where it only applies to "brownies". Would you agree? Jun 16 '17 at 16:17
  • Yep, that's how I imagined the intonation when you described it. With the two cases juxtaposed, I do see your point. In the second case, it's clear that it only applies to "brownies," but that may be partly because you paused after "brownies" (as well as changing the intonation). The first case is still ambiguous to me, but it could be simply because I've said it so many times in my head that "brownies" no longer sounds like a real word...
    – dkv
    Jun 16 '17 at 17:23
  • Gotta love it when that happens... I just experienced it with "choose" in another answer today. And you might be right about the pause, but when I say it quickly enough, I get the same impression. Intonation is hard to pin down. Jun 16 '17 at 17:29

So how do you know what the adjective applies to?

So much of what words mean and how meanings are determined is controlled by context and what is expected, usual, or popular. If there is not context to support your meaning you must create it or be explicit.

I like warm brownies, tea, and coffee

These are all things people typically like warm. So any listener/reader would assume you mean warm brownies, warm tea, and warm coffee.

If you want to be 100% clear you mean all of them wart, you can do this and be really wordy about it:

I like warm brownies, warm tea, and warm coffee.

Since most people like all these things warm, the fact you are being explicit is going to make the listener/reader think that there is some weirdo around that likes one of these cold. So the listener in a live conversation may say something like "Who doesn't?"

Unfortunately there is not a graceful way to fight strong context or assumptions if you don't want the listener/reader to make them. Context/assuptions like these are very strong so you have to jar the listener/reader in order to break the assumption effect of context. Don't be afraid to do it.

You would have to say, for example:

I like warm brownies, tea whether it's hot or cold, and coffee whether it's hot or cold too.

I like warm brownies, hot or cold tea, and hot or cold coffee too.

A lot of language requires trying to predict the mind of your listener/reader, and in live speech facial expressions and tone of speech helps a lot. In writing you have to be wordy sometimes.


Usually the adjective precedes the noun it's modifying, however, with multiple nouns the adjective can either modify one or all or some of them. You can rephrase the sentence to make it more clear:

  • I like brownies, tea, and coffee, all (of them) warm.

Notice, when you use and most of the time the adjective preceding the joined nouns will modify both:

  • I like warm brownies, hot tea and coffee, and cookies.

This means you like warm brownies, you like hot tea and hot coffee, and you like cookies (unspecific, non-modified).

If you wish to modify only one noun it is better to place it at the end of the list:

  • I like tea, coffee, and warm brownies.
  • 1
    Notice the Oxfords comma. May 12 '17 at 6:42
  • I never omit the Oxford comma in my writing :3
    – Aric
    Aug 22 '17 at 9:44

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