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What is the outcome of any and every sentence in the following sentence format when the rules of English grammar is applied upon them.

sentence format <Noun Verb Determiner Adjective Noun Conjunction Noun.

Will the sentence in the said sentence format be interpreted as <Noun Verb Determiner Adjective (Noun Conjunction Noun)> or will it be interpreted as <Noun Verb Determiner (Adjective Noun) Conjunction Noun> ?

For example: - Does this sentence "I saw a blue car and bus" mean "blue bus" or any coloured bus ?

Tks

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    I think most people would understand it to mean that both were blue, unless you said "a blue car and a bus". Sep 23, 2023 at 11:04
  • 11
    Without further context,It's a bit ambiguous.
    – Sam
    Sep 23, 2023 at 11:38
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    The sentence is not really idiomatic, not something a native speaker is likely to say. Sep 23, 2023 at 12:24
  • 4
    Does this answer your question? One Noun, Two Adjectives, Connected with "and" Sep 23, 2023 at 13:04
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    English is extremely ambiguous almost all the time. Grammar is irrelevant to ambiguity.
    – Fattie
    Sep 25, 2023 at 12:19

8 Answers 8

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As commented, OP's example is a bit "weird". But here are two different versions of a common assertion that manifests the same potential ambiguity, showing how native Anglophones resolve that ambiguity...

1: I have a younger brother and sister
(very strongly implies my brother and sister are both younger than me)
2: I have a younger brother and a sister 1
(strongly implies only my brother is younger)

...and for completeness...
3: I have a sister and younger brother
4: I have a sister and a younger brother
...both of which mean the same as #2 (only the brother is younger)

It's important to note that if the adjective modifies only one noun, we normally specify the "unmodified" noun first, so #2 isn't actually very common anyway...

enter image description here

As this usage chart shows, references to siblings who are both younger far outweigh references explicitly stating that only one sibling is younger. That's why I didn't include #1 in the chart (comparatively speaking, all other versions would just "flatline" on the chart).


1 The effect of repeating the article here is to place more "syntactic distance" between the two nouns, which therefore makes it less likely that we would extend the scope of the adjective to apply to both. Exactly the same effect arises if we include a comma / pause before and. Either or both of these "distancing" methods can be used to override the default assumption that the scope of the adjective does "run through" to the second noun.

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    Without other context, the robot had better regard this as ambiguous and not make any decisions based on either meaning. Perhaps its neural network can recognize that the color of the bus is uncertain, and there is an X% chance that it is blue. Of course, there's a less-than-100% chance the car is blue, though a 100% chance that the speaker said so...
    – rcook
    Sep 23, 2023 at 14:12
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    As people keep pointing out, your example is "weird", so it's not easy for native Anglophones to give a sensible summary of how they would interpret it. But the whole point of my answer is to show how the syntax works with a much more common situation. I have a younger brother and sister is syntactically identical to I saw a blue car and van, so we parse both utterances in the same way - a blue (car and van) = a younger (brother and sister). Sep 23, 2023 at 14:16
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    @Stechavy: This isn't a "syntactic rule" - it's an idiomatic tendency. But because your particular example is a bit odd, people aren't clear on how that tendency applies. Look again at my text and charts, and you should see how strongly we prefer to specify the unmodified noun first, if there's a mix. Sep 23, 2023 at 14:24
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    @Stechavy: For the umpteenth time, it's not a rule. I've told you the default principles, but you can see from comments under James's answer that native speakers can easily find examples that don't reflect the convention - either forcing us to reverse the normal principle, OR to accept that some statements are inherently ambiguous. If the ambiguity is a problem, just rephrase. Sep 23, 2023 at 15:57
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    Fumble - sorry, i accidentally hit "send!!!" The OP thinks grammar relates to ambiguity, the OP is asking "what's wrong with the grammar, how should the grammar be different". Answer, grammar has no connection at all to ambiguity. The sentence "I saw a blue car and bus" is 10000% AOK grammatically, end of story.
    – Fattie
    Sep 25, 2023 at 12:33
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It means "a blue bus". After "and" you can omit repeated words. In this way:

  • I saw a car and (a) bus
  • I saw a blue car and (a blue) bus
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    …except I'm fairly certain that no native English speaker would ever say *"I saw a car and bus" without repeating the article. It kind of sounds as is the speaker was trying to describe some single thing named "car-and-bus" (maybe a car attached to a bus somehow?), which is of course silly. Sep 24, 2023 at 8:40
  • @IlmariKaronen: that could be the explanation why "I saw a blue mother and child" is fine if unlikely, "I saw a blue shirt and tie" is fine but probably means you're shopping or you'd have mentioned the person wearing them, and "I saw a blue waistcoat and hammer" doesn't really parse. To my ear, anyway. The "X and Y" needs to be an actual pairing in order to say "a blue X and Y" rather than disambiguating by saying either "a blue X and a Y" or "a blue X and a blue Y". For me, "A blue car and bus" offers no such pairing, and it's out. Sep 26, 2023 at 17:50
  • Bring back hyphens, if you ask me. "I saw a blue mother-and-child", "I saw a blue shirt-and-tie", "I saw a blue wheel-and-axle". But what's a "waistcoat-and-hammer". What's a "car-and-bus"? Sometimes a construction that follows some grammatical production rule is disallowed just because the result of it doesn't exist as a concept. You can put a hammer near a waistcoat, but that still doesn't make it a waistcoat-and-hammer. Sep 26, 2023 at 17:52
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I've read through the responses, and I see a lack of agreement of responses, so I'll speak to my experience as a native speaker with some insight into language. First, the idea that the construction is not grammatical is clearly wrong. The question of whether something is frequently said, sometimes referred to as idiomatic, and whether it violates grammar are two different things. A related example of this is "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". Because the question of whether or not the bus is blue is vague, does not make it non-grammatical. It makes it semantically ambiguous.

Secondly, "I saw a car and a bus" can certainly be shortened to "I saw a car and bus" with an implication that the indefinite article "a" carries over to the bus meaning "I saw a pair of things: car and bus". But the caveat is that it is only an implication and therefore it is vague. Vagueness in language is a feature by which the tokens of a language can have multiple senses and require disambiguation.

"I saw a blue car and bus" today to my ear as a native speaker suggests "I saw a pair of things: a blue car and blue bus", but some less competent native speakers might violate an important rule by using the sentence and not meaning that the bus was also blue. So, in a court of law, for instance, any attorney isn't going to let the vagueness stand, and would ask follow up questions to avoid confusion.

There are some rules that speakers use that it is best to be familiar with that are known collectively in the philosophy of language as obeying the cooperative principle.

The maxim of quantity would be violated by saying "A blue car and a blue bus" because shorter is better. Thus "A blue car and bus" doesn't waste any time. The maxim of manner or clarity is violated by "A blue car and bus" and so "A blue car and a blue bus" is better. So what does a speaker do when two principles intuitively clash? They rely on the context of the conversation. Which means they're both right depending on how they play a role in part of the larger conversation. Children and jokes often playfully exploit this sort of vagueness.

Thus, both are grammatical AND idiomatic under the right situation. Unless you provide additional context, it's difficult to advise.

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    +1. So informative and refreshing!
    – user424874
    Sep 25, 2023 at 18:16
  • I don't really think "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" speaks to "grammatical vs. idiomatic". Yes, it's grammatical, but to me it's also perfectly idiomatic. It's just not something that occurred to anyone to say, in large part because to the extent it can be understood at all, it's simply not true ("colorless green" being contradictory to the point that, even if ideas can have color in some figurative sense, you sort of think there'd still be no colorless green ideas to speak of). But, if that's what you meant, you'd say it that way. Sep 26, 2023 at 17:42
  • @SteveJessop I offered as an example of the distinction among meaningful, idiomatic, and syntactic. It is syntactic, not literally meaningful, but idiomatic only as a reference for understanding the syntactic-semantic distinction.
    – J D
    Sep 26, 2023 at 18:02
  • That being said, it is not idiomatic to even most native Engliah speakers, but is idiomatic as linguistic jargon. Obviously, whether or not it is idiomatic to a speaker is a function of sophistication of knowledge. For an ELL, it's unlikely to be idiomatic.
    – J D
    Sep 26, 2023 at 18:04
  • Well yes, the trouble with an example of something that nobody has ever said, is that you just said it ;-) I suppose my understanding of "idiomatic" as meaning, "the way you would construct a sentence to have the meaning that this has", as opposed to, "an example of something that people actually have said", may be incorrect. "Sleep furiously" I have absolutely no problem with. "Colorless green" is a contradiction, but is still the idiomatic way to state such any contradictory precondition. Sep 26, 2023 at 18:07
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I'm fairly confident in saying that your example sentence:

"I saw a blue car and bus"

is not grammatically correct English, and also not something a native speaker would ever normally utter.*

English requires articles before nouns (except when it doesn't, but let's not dive into that rabbit hole right now). And a fluent English speaker would insert one before "bus", unless they were either:

  1. referring to some single thing named "car-and-bus", or
  2. trying to use the word "bus" as something other than a singular countable common noun.**

So it's not surprising that you're getting contradictory answers on how different people understand this broken sentence, since it all depends on how they try to mentally correct it.


Anyway, inserting the missing article, the corrected sentence "I saw a blue car and a bus" strictly speaking only says that the car was blue, without implying anything about the color of the bus. It could of course also be blue, but it doesn't have to be.

That said, in a suitable context, I could see it carrying a suggestion that the bus was blue, too. For example, imagine a child playing a game where they have to spot as many different blue things as they can during a trip, and later being asked by their parent if they saw any, and answering:

"Yes I did! I saw a blue car and a bus and a mailbox and a traffic sign and flowers and a balloon and…"

The speaker certainly could have repeated the word "blue" before each item in the list, but they chose not to (and the parent listening to them was probably thankful for it). But the contextual implication that this is a list of blue things is still there, even if only the first item is explicitly described as being blue.


*) Those are not the same thing, at least not unless you want to be an ultra-descriptivist and basically define something to be "grammatically correct" if and only if it's idiomatic for native speakers of the language to say. While I tend to be a descriptivist myself, I wouldn't go quite that far: even if a grammar, to me, is essentially an attempt to formalize how speakers of a language actually communicate, I'm still willing to grant such formal descriptions an existence and validity separate from the vague and nebulous thing that they try to describe.

**) A second verb could come naturally after "and", but "bus" can't really be parsed as a verb here, since it doesn't look like a regular past tense English verb ending in "-ed" and doesn't match any common verb with an irregular past tense either. Of course there are other possible interpretations too, like "Bus" maybe being somebody's (kind of weird) name, but those get increasingly outlandish and unlikely.

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    The core premise of this answer is wrong, articles can be omitted due to repetition. "English requires articles before nouns" is plain wrong, as evidenced by your own usage of "English", "articles" and "nouns" in that very sentence. "except when it doesn't, but let's not dive into that rabbit hole right now" is a cop out as this is the core focus of your answer, which for some unexplained reason you willfully don't address. Then you continue with explaining that "blue" could be omitted due to repetition, somehow still willfully ignoring that the same applies to the article itself.
    – Flater
    Sep 25, 2023 at 5:04
  • I'm not downvoting, but as a native speaker of linguistic competency, I'd say that it would be perfectly natural to say "blue car and bus" in certain contexts. For instance "What color vehicles did you see today?" -> "I saw a blue car and bus.", "I saw a blue car, truck, and bus." It sounds natural to my ear to omit on both. The use of other articles would be redundant, particularly in the latter example. Also, just because there is non-standard usage, you can't declare something non-grammatical. "I saw a blue car and bus" is certainly grammatical. "I ate a piece of toast and bacon"...
    – J D
    Sep 25, 2023 at 17:39
  • has exactly the same structure and is equally as sensible and it would be non-grammatical to include an article because 'bacon' is a mass noun. Articles are tricky and subtle, and often not required. "I saw a star" Ok. "I saw star". Not. "I saw the stars". Ok. "I saw stars". Ok too. "I saw the moon and star". Ok too. There's another example where it's absolutely natural to drop an article for brevity. "I saw a car and bus on the road". That works. "I washed a car and bus earlier." Yeah, I don't think your claim holds any weight.
    – J D
    Sep 25, 2023 at 17:43
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    @J D: I wonder if there's some regional/dialect difference here. All the acceptable examples you give sound bad to me. I simply would never answer the question, "What colour vehicles did you see today?" with "I saw a blue car and bus", if the fact was I saw one blue car and one blue bus. I would edit any document going across my desk that said that. I'm in the UK, hence "color" -> "colour", and maybe this is the same. FWIW if the question was just "What vehicles did you see?" then I might say, "I saw a car, a truck, and a bus" but never "I saw a car, truck and bus". Sep 26, 2023 at 18:28
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    For an example of the version with a verb: "I saw a blue car and wept". But to be fair, the question did say it only concerns cases where the last word has been parsed as a noun. So thankfully the questioner ruled out the "fruit flies like a banana" scenario, where it's potentially ambiguous what's a verb. Sep 26, 2023 at 18:56
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I'm adding another answer, as all the other answers completely miss the point of this question.

OP,

Ambiguity has no connection, at all - utterly no connection - in any way - whatsoever - to grammar.

It's that simple. End of story.

  • An utterance which is perfectly grammatically correct, can be completely ambiguous.

  • An utterance which has grammatical errors, can be completely ambiguous.

  • An utterance which is perfectly grammatically correct, can be unambiguous.

  • An utterance which has grammatical errors, can be unambiguous.

Grammar has simply no connection at all, in any way to ambiguity - just as it obviously has no connection to content.

Note that similarly grammar has, obviously, no connection to content.

Say I said "Radio signals work by using fairy dust." If you then asked "what's wrong with that sentence grammatically" you would be completely misguided.

Over and over on this site, questions are asked about the grammar of ambiguous sentences. This is simply misguided.

I think it's worth noting that answers which fail to immediately and conclusively point out that grammar has nothing to do with ambiguity, really confuse the OP. Unfortunately this confusion happens over and over, almost daily, on this site.

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  • Pretty sure that's untrue. Language evolves toward an equilbrium between ease of utterance and disambiguation. Over the centuries clarity and grammar are intertwined. I can only think of a suboptimal example where [lack of] ambiguity has shaped grammar over the centuries ( lie / lay, sit / set ) but I'll think of better ones. Point being semistandard forms are more readily accepted if they don't create confusion. Sep 25, 2023 at 13:19
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    Thanks for your remarks. "...so common in English." That doesn't directly address the claim I've made. No one is suggesting any language is completely free of ambiguity, rather that avoidance of ambiguity [imperfectly] shapes development over time. Cheers. Sep 25, 2023 at 13:52
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    I don’t see how this answers the question.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 26, 2023 at 14:34
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    @CarstenS It states that the question has no answer, which is a valid kind of answer.
    – Corrodias
    Sep 26, 2023 at 16:28
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    Note that the possibility of all four quadrants does not imply "utterly no connection". There are tall adults, tall children, short adults and short children. It does not follow that your height has utterly no connection to whether you're a child or an adult. Pretty much everybody averages shorter as a child than they later do as an adult ;-) Nevertheless, you are correct that the answer to this question does not lie in correctly solving the grammar of their sentence template :-) Sep 26, 2023 at 17:28
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The structure of the sentence suggests to me that the car and the bus are a set in some way. Otherwise I would expect to expand it to “I saw a blue car and I saw bus”, which makes no sense. As a blue set, both the car and the bus would be blue.

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On its own, it does not imply that the bus is blue. But it probably is, because if the colour of the bus isn't blue you would probably mention that fact.

But in natural contexts, the listener might infer or understand that the bus was also blue. You would need to know why the person was talking about cars and buses; what question were they answering?

What colours of vehicles did you see today?

I saw a blue car and bus.

In this conversation (about colour) I'd infer that the bus was also blue.

On the other hand, suppose I said "I ate spicy chicken and chips". I'd probably assume that "spicy" only applies to the chicken.

In particular cases, you would assume that the adjective applies to both, or only to one. But you can't generalise this to a universal rule.

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    You're introducing a comma, which obviously changes the meaning (the purpose of the comma being to distance the second noun from the first, so the adjective doesn't "carry forward"). The comma is an even stronger "separator" than repeating the article. But learners need to get their heads around the fact that we specify the unmodified noun first, when the adjective doesn't apply to both nouns. Then they wouldn't have to pore over these misleading artificial examples, anyway. Sep 23, 2023 at 14:56
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    I just had some spicy chicken and chips. Were the chips spicy?
    – James K
    Sep 23, 2023 at 15:43
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    But actually they weren't spicy. So by blindly following a rule you have come to the wrong conclusion. And this really is the point. I don't think the OP is really asking about cars and buses; they are asking if there is a universal rule that can apply in all contexts, and I don't believe that there is.
    – James K
    Sep 24, 2023 at 5:00
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    "The rules of English grammar is crystal clear & black & white (i.e there are no grey areas)." is not correct; in fact, the opposite is true: Generally the only rule in English without exceptions is that all English rules have exceptions.
    – Josh
    Sep 24, 2023 at 14:36
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    @Stechavy: I don't understand why you asked the querstion in the first place if you claim to know "the rules" of English better than native Anglophones. You're completely mistaken on this specific point though. James might be overstating the case for there being no "rule", but obviously there are so many perfectly valid examples of utterances that don't observe the general principle that no-one could sensibly claim there's an actual rule here. It really is just a tendency, and there are probably identifiable subcategories of contexts where it doesn't apply. Sep 24, 2023 at 15:45
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I'm a non-English speaker who has immersed himself in this language for over 20 years. To me, this sentence should read as: I saw a blue car and a bus. And, with or without "a", I would understand the person saw a blue car, but not necessarily a [blue] bus; the bus can come in any color. And if an officer asked me what I saw, I'd say I saw a car and a bus, which were both blue.

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  • Unfortunately (for English) this is "completely wrong" ! Heh! It would be totally commonplace that the sentence form means both A and B are blue; you can trivially give a zillion examples. ("I saw a French mother and child.") Grammar is totally, completely, wholly uninvolved here. Sure, the sentence (which is utterly correct grammatically) "I saw a blue sky and bricks" is strange, but so what?
    – Fattie
    Sep 25, 2023 at 13:36
  • Oh, I see. You mean the sentence is correct and the bus can be blue too? A matter of ellipsis? [I'm not claiming, I'm just asking to learn]
    – Shahrooz
    Sep 26, 2023 at 20:39

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