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a. He was the son of a priest and a historian.

Could one use that sentence if his one of his parents was both a priest and a historian?

Or would that have to be

b. He was the son of a priest and historian.

I think (b) is clear, although it does sound a bit strange to me. I am not sure (a) is not ambiguous.

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  • 2
    ... why the downvote? This seems like a reasonable and clear question.
    – JavaLatte
    Jun 26 at 2:54
  • @JavaLatte someone has recently been downvoting nearly all the posts, not sure why
    – DialFrost
    Jun 26 at 3:15
  • @DialFrost Not me. I didn't downvote this one.
    – Eden0516
    Jun 26 at 6:10

3 Answers 3

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They both need clarification.

a) would be fine if it went on "...a priest and a historian who met...." or "...a priest and a historian. They met..." As long as it's made clear they met each other, it's clear they were two people.

b) would be clear if you made it, "He was the son of a priest and historian who was ..." - the word "was" being third person singular. Or you could say, "He was the son of priest and historian John Brown."

If he was the son of a priest, and a historian, the comma makes that clear, though we would usually swap the order: He was a historian and the son of a priest.

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    I agree. Both of the versions are grammatically valid, but both are also ambiguous. The ambiguity stemming from the fact that two nouns are being provided in the context of parents (where everyone has two). So both nouns could apply to either parent, or one could apply to each parent.
    – Richard
    Jun 26 at 4:14
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I fully agree with the points you have given and yes, (a) can be used to say one of his parents was both a priest and historian, but it also might be interpreted as the mother being a historian and the father being a preist or vice versa. However, some may feel that (a) suggests that the son was a historian himself! (b) suggests the same but it is more clear, and removes the ambiguity of the son being a historian himself.

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  • Thank you all very very much. How about: "I talked to a priest and a historian." Could I have talked to one person only? I think here it is clear that I talked to two people, but I am not sure.
    – azz
    Jun 26 at 7:36
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    Yes in that case it is more clear you are talking to 2 people. @azz
    – DialFrost
    Jun 27 at 2:45
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This NGRAM graph shows that, when talking about a single person, both forms are common, though the form in sentence b is currently somewhat more common. Here are two actual examples:

Alec Finlay is an artist and a poet, recently artist in residence at THE BALTIC (Gateshead).

Jenna Boo is an artist and poet who takes you on a magical adventure into her art studio

When talking about a person's parents, I would assume that sentence a would mean that one parent was a priest and the other a historian, and sentence b would mean that one parent was both a priest and a historian.

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  • "I am the son of a gentleman and a scholar"? Jun 26 at 8:06
  • @MichaelHarvey in times gone by, that would be completely unambiguous: women were not taken seriously as scholars, so both adjectives would be considered to apply to the father. Fortunately we are somewhat more enlightened, and your mother could be a scholar.
    – JavaLatte
    Jun 27 at 6:28
  • Er, I knew that. Jun 27 at 7:52

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