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Okay, this might be a very basic question, but I can't seem to figure this out.

Usually, a single adjective modifies multiple nouns or noun phrases individually in a series. For example, "expired" and "black" modifies all the nouns that follow:

To save a few pennies, Lewis picked up expired milk, cheese, and bread. - > [... expired milk, expired cheese, and expired bread]
She was wearing a black skirt, top, and jacket. - > [... a black skirt, a black top, and a black jacket]

My question is, How to state a total for a list of items without any ambiguity? For example:

I did 20 push-ups and 30 sit-ups yesterday. [This makes sense]
I did over 2,000 push-ups and sit-ups last month. [This only makes sense if it means "2000 push-ups and 2000 sit-ups]
I have 6 legs, hands, and eyes. [This doesn't make any sense, and it establishes that a total figure cannot be used like this]

Sometimes, you don't want to throw too many numbers at your reader, and you just need to provide a total for a list of things.

I spent 8 hours cleaning, cooking, and gardening. [??? This sounds natural, but it is technically incorrect if the intended meaning is "... spent a total of 8 hours doing a bunch of things"]

If I graded 6,000 assignments, 4,000 midterms, and 2,000 final exams, how do I correctly state the total figure?

Graded approximately 12,000 assignments, midterms, and final exams. [This is wrong! Here, "12,000" individually modifies each item]

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How to state a total for a list of items without any ambiguity?

I did a total of two thousand push-ups and sit-ups last month. At least.

Or

I did loads of push-ups and sit-ups last month: two thousand at least.

I have 6 legs, hands, and eyes.

I have hands, eyes and six legs.

You say, Sometimes, you don't want to throw too many numbers at your reader.

If you really want to tell your reader precisely how long you spent on each task, you may have to! The numbers may look better written as words though.

In context I spent eight hours cleaning, cooking, and gardening would usually make sense: if, for example, you are describing a single day. If you had indeed spent twenty-four hours doing those things then you would surely say, I spent twenty-four hours cleaning....

If the intended meaning is I spent a total of eight hours... then why not use 'total'?

I spent a total of eight hours cleaning, cooking, and gardening.

If I graded [approximately] 6,000 assignments, 4,000 midterms, and 2,000 final exams, how do I correctly state the total figure?

I graded [approximately] 12,000 papers: assignments, midterms, and final exams.

or

I graded assignments, midterms and final exams: 12,000 papers in all.

If they aren't papers, you could say pieces of work or submissions or whatever you call them.

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  • When I said I have 6 legs, hands, and eyes. I meant I have 2 legs, 2 hands, and 2 eyes. In "I spent a total of 8 hours cleaning, cooking, and gardening", total of 8 hours can apply individually to each of the items (i.e., a total of 8 hours cleaning, a total of 8 hours cooking, ...) - so it's still ambiguous. I like your example with "papers" - that seems to clear things out. – AIQ Sep 27 '20 at 3:05
  • Well if you really want to say it you have to say "I have two legs, two hands and two eyes." Most readers would assume that "total" referred to the TOTAL hours you spent on those things. They would know (as I said) that if you had really spent 24 hours doing those things you would have said so. – Old Brixtonian Sep 27 '20 at 4:04
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If you want the numbers to be unambiguous, you are going to have to make them that way. There is no way to just say "6" and mention 3 different things and have the grammar straighten out the meaning for you -- it is too ambiguous to your listener.

To save a few pennies, the milk, cheese, and break she picked up were all expired.

She was wearing a skirt, top, and jacket, all of them black.

I did 2,000 each of pushups and situps yesterday.

I did cleaning, cooking, and gardening, 8 hours in all.

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