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I recently read this sentence:

Compared to other emotions, such feelings are not treated as special and strong.

and wasn't sure if it was ambiguous or not. Which of these are correct interpretations?

  1. Compared to other emotions, such feelings are (not treated as special) and (strong)
  2. Compared to other emotions, such feelings are (not treated as) (special and strong)
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    It is inherently ambiguous, but the heavily default sense is your second. A Gricean maxim demands that the first meaning should be clarified: 'Compared to other emotions, such feelings are not treated as special, and are strong.' or 'Compared to other emotions, such feelings are strong and not treated as special.' Though I'd expect the coordinator to be 'but'. Commented Mar 31 at 12:01

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I'm curious as to where this text came from as, where I am from, it would not be considered ambiguous but rather, not well written.

The fact that 'special' and 'strong' are not separated, but are treated as a single unit, indicates that whatever is attributed/done to that unit applies to both parts of the unit.

He put the beans and the peas in the fridge. (beans and peas = 1 unit so both went into the fridge)

He put the beans, but not the peas, in the fridge. (beans and peas treated diffferently)

He put the beans in the fridge but not the peas. (beans and peas treated diffferently)

Her luggage was damaged and muddy. (both adjectives apply)

Her luggage was muddy but not damaged. (only muddy applies)

Her luggage was not damaged but only muddied. (only muddy applies)

Re your first option: "Compared to other emotions, such feelings are (not treated as special) and (strong)".

I understand this to mean;

  • They are not treated as special.

  • They are treated as strong.

This could be written a few different ways to separate the two attributes which are being contrasted eg;

Compared to other emotions, such feelings, though strong, are not treated as special.

Compared to other emotions, such feelings are treated as strong but not special.

Compared to other emotions, such feelings are treated as strong, though not special.

The way the sentence is currently it does not communicate that. As 'special' and 'strong' are not applied equally, there is a contrast being made which needs appropriate words and sentence structure to be added to indicate this eg but, although, but rather, though.

Re your second option: Compared to other emotions, such feelings are (not treated as) (special and strong).

I understand this to mean;

  • They are treated as special.

  • They are treated as strong.

Special and strong form one unit therefore both apply to the feelings. This is the only meaning that can be taken from the treatment of "special and strong" as a unit.

However, from the point of view of communication, the sentence would be more elegantly and effectively written as:

Compared to other emotions, such feelings are treated as neither special nor strong.

(please accept my apologies for the poor formatting.)

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  • I agree the original text is clumsy - either from a non-native speaker, or a near-illiterate Anglophone. For me, it's a kind of "zeugma", in that to treat something as "special" is normal English, but to treat something as "strong" is at best "peculiar" phrasing, which really doesn't work when collapsed into a single "treatment" alongside "special". As can be easily shown by rephrasing the first attribute into given special treatment with no real change in meaning, whereas given strong treatment is nonsense. Commented Mar 31 at 18:58
  • I stumbled upon a question by the same user on a very similar sentence in the Japanese SE. I'm guessing that the issues with this sentence come from it being a translation rather than a native text japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/103964/…
    – YonKuma
    Commented Apr 1 at 13:49

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