Background: When I am reading some English books, I always find this pattern confusing. So now I make up a meaningless sentences to stand for my question.

He likes sweet apples and oranges.

Is the word sweet describing only apples or both apples and the oranges?

In another word, is the word appearing in the first noun also describing the 2nd noun that follows by "and" ?

  1. He likes sweet apples and sweet oranges.
  2. He likes sweet apples. He also likes oranges. (Whether sweet or not is fine)

Which one is correct understanding for the sentence He likes sweet apples and oranges ?

  • 2
    To me it means he likes sweet apples and sweet oranges, but others may disagree. Because he specifies the taste of the apples, I expect the same for the oranges. If he doesn't like sweet oranges, I'd expect something like "tangy" or "zesty" oranges. – anouk Sep 18 at 15:50

In ordinary conversational usage, it is most likely that sweet would be interpreted to apply to both apples and oranges.

The construction is inherently ambiguous, however, and this weak default will be overridden by context. Furthermore, depending on the matter being discussed, even more possible interpretations must be considered.

He wears bright red and yellow shirts.

This could mean

  1. He wears bright red shirts and also bright yellow shirts.
  2. He wears bright red shirts as well as yellow shirts of any intensity.
  3. He wears shirts that are a combination of bright red and bright yellow.
  4. He wears shirts that are a combination of bright red and yellow of differing intensity.

One can only get around this ambiguity by adding additional context or by rewording or reformatting the sentence to be extra-explicit:

  1. He wears shirts that are bright red and bright yellow.
  2. He wears bright red, and yellow shirts.
  3. He wears yellow shirts and also bright red ones.
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  • Ok so in a word it's based on the context, and if someone wants to be very specific, he should add addtional context or description. Thanks ;) – Rick Sep 19 at 2:39
  • 1
    Yes, if the distinction is important, be explicit. "We should get fruit for the ambassador's visit. She likes sweet apples and sweet, bitter, or sour oranges." – choster Sep 19 at 13:08

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