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Example showing how brackets can be confusing

This is a sample from an O' Level science book:

The impure solid is dissolved in the minimum amount of hot water (or any other suitable solvent) [...]

There are two ways to interpret this:

  1. Hot water (as a whole) is one "suitable solvent", but any other such solvents can used. The solid is to be dissolved in a suitable solvent.

  2. Water is a "suitable solvent"; other solvents can also be used. Whatever the solvent is, it has to be hot. The solid is to be dissolved in a hot solvent.

Since this is a science book, the writers have to state the reasons behind everything and ensure clarity. The following sentences (indirectly) clear up the confusion:

[...], and then allowed to cool again. Most solids are less soluble in the cold than in the hot, and so crystals are formed again.

So #2 was the right interpretation.

The question

However, in most unscientific day-to-day writing, not every sentence has to be backed up by explanation. So the question is how to understand which word(s) or phrase brackets point to?

  • 5
    There is nothing grammatical that can distinguish those two interpretations, at least without modifications to the sentence. You have to rely (as you ably did) on context, reasoning, and what you know about the world. It's worth noting that even if you hadn't had the following sentences, you would ask yourself: If the heat has nothing to do with the water's quality as a solvent, why would they specify "hot"? If you give the authors the benefit of the doubt, you would proceed on the assumption that the heat is relevant. – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 12:14
  • @LukeSawczak I'm a non-native speaker (and only a 8th grader). It isn't always that easy for me. Not everything is as obvious to me. – Soha Farhin Pine Jul 4 '17 at 12:17
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    8th-grader or not, you did a good job of reasoning your way through the passage. You'll encounter many more of these ambiguous sentences, and you can continue to deal with them the same way you dealt with this one. It's a good question — sorry there isn't a satisfying answer! – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 12:19
  • @LukeSawczak Thanks for giving your opinion, anyways. So, there's really no hard and fast rule? And I like asking intriguing questions on problems like this, which probably many people face. – Soha Farhin Pine Jul 4 '17 at 12:22
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    I'd read hot water as a single block in that example (your interpretation #1). Presumably, cold water wouldn't be a suitable solvent. The word suitable seems to be significant here. However, other words in other contexts might favour your interpretation #2. As @LukeSawczak notes, this is part of the ambiguity of language - certainly in English, but also, I'd expect, in other natural languages as well. – Lawrence Jul 4 '17 at 12:46
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Your two interpretations are both grammatically possible and your description of the differences in meaning is absolutely right. Since you came to the right conclusion, the rest of this answer is probably spelling out what you already know, but it might be helpful to someone else with similar problems. After all, we all encounter ambiguous sentences like this every day...

To answer the question directly: No, nothing forces "or other suitable solvent" to apply to either "water" or "hot water". In this case, the rules of evaluation don't bind either pair of items more closely.

Simply reasoning about it, you might say: "If all that mattered was that it was water, they wouldn't have called the water hot."

... the minimum of [ [ hot water ] or other suitable solvent ]

But as you noted, we can hold off on applying "hot" until we've evaluated the next expression, and it can still make sense because solvents can be hot:

...the minimum amount of [ hot [ water or other suitable solvent ] ]
→ ... the minimum amount of hot solvent

So you move on to what you know about the world. According to the above reading, one needs a hot solvent to dissolve the impure solid. Now, based on what you've learned so far about solvents, are they generally more effective if they're hot, or is that only true of water? You might conclude that it's the water that needs to be hot, because many solvents are more effective than water at any temperature...

However, once you consider that the subject is crystallization, you discover that the temperature of the solvent is relevant for this particular application. Of course, the catch-22 is that this is the very subject you're learning about right now, so you're not likely to know this already. So you may have to quickly add to your knowledge of the world with a search result or two.

Even if you stopped there, you probably have enough certainty to proceed on the assumption that "hot solvent" is correct and not "hot water". But luckily this whole limbo of assumption doesn't last long, because you're reading a sentence out of a whole chapter — and context, which is your strongest tool, allows the author to clarify what they mean. As people usually do in life. :)


Edit: That this sort of ambiguity is inherent in all languages and difficult to resolve is demonstrated very well by David Bellos in Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, his book on translation:

An EU regulation exists that allows member states to make exemptions from the general rule for the 'transport of animal carcasses or waste not intended for human consumption'. [A] firm that had been fined in the UK had been transporting animal carcasses to butcher's shops, which clearly intended to sell them for human consumption. But the lorry firm claimed it was exempted from the rule by the EU clause just quoted [...] The lorry firm's lawyers claimed that waste not intended for human consumption and animal carcasses in general (whether intended for human consumption or not) were exempted, where as the UK courts had considered that the exemption only applied to waste and animal carcasses NOT intended for human consumption. [...]

The issue at the heart of this case is a familiar problem in the language of law and in language in general: when you have a list of nouns followed by a qualifying or restricting phrase, where do you put the brackets? Does the restricting phrase restrict every member of the list, or only the last one? Does the expression 'children and women with babes in arms' include children with babes in arms or does it not?

In daily usage we leave disambiguation of this kind to common sense and context.
(pp.246–7)

He goes on to describe how the court examined all 23 versions of the exemption in the different languages of the EU, and found only one (Dutch) where the restriction "not intended for human consumption" unambiguously applied to both "animals" and "waste". This was taken as the authoritative version, and the firm had to pay the fine.

The syntax of this example isn't identical to the one you cited, but it's the same problem at its core. How can you know what a modifier applies to? Apparently you shouldn't ask the European Court of Justice. (Incidentally, I think common sense would have been sufficient if it weren't a legal case: if "not intended for human consumption" only applied to "waste", why would they even mention it? Is there any animal waste that is intended for human consumption? But in law you must be sure!)

By the way, it's worth noting that this kind of ambiguity is quite easy to avoid orally. Your intonation, pause points, and even stress generally give strong hints as to what applies to what. For instance, in @Tᴚoɯɐuo's example about "breast milk (or formula)", the term "breast milk" is a compound noun rather than an adjective + noun and hence must be stressed on the first syllable, which signals to the listener that "breast" cannot apply to "formula".

  • @SohaFarhinPine I've added a passage in support of this analysis that might be of interest. – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 18:10
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The parenthetic remark normally immediately follows the word(s) it refers to.

Add two tsp sugar (or honey).

Add two tsp sugar (or molasses to taste). not necessarily 2 tsp molasses

Add 2 oz apple (or red wine) vinegar.

If the authors wanted to qualify hot, the parenthetic remark would follow the adjective.

Dissolve the powder in warm (or boiling) water.

Coming after "hot water", the parenthetic remark qualifies the noun phrase, "hot water".

Dissolve the powder in hot water (or whiskey).

The whiskey need not be hot. It is an alternative to hot water.

This is a well-established typographic/orthographic convention.

  • Feed the baby warm milk (or formula). – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 16:47
  • Nutritional value may vary depending on food, but none is as complete as breast milk (or formula). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 4 '17 at 17:03
  • Precisely. Hopefully through these two contrasting examples one can come to the conclusion that it's not a typographic convention but a deduction on the basis of the context and the sense produced by the different applications of the modifier. – Luke Sawczak Jul 4 '17 at 17:36
  • -1 You didn't quite get the thing. – Soha Farhin Pine Jul 4 '17 at 18:12
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    @Soha Farhin Pine: This is an issue of information packaging. since the grammar is ambiguous. In a chemistry textbook, say, the phrase Hot water (or alcohol) would normally not indicate that the alcohol must be hot. However, in a cookbook, pureed strawberries (or lingonberries) would probably indicate that the lingonberries should be pureed as well. If we wanted to say that the alcohol needed to be hot too, we wouldn't write it that way but like this: ...in hot water or hot alcohol or like this: ... in water or alcohol; whichever solvent is chosen, it should be heated. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 5 '17 at 11:01

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