Please tell me is the adjective applied to both nouns in the sentence below:

Operational planning and control

... and generally how can I recognize things like this? Is there a grammatical rule or is it something logic?



1 Answer 1


In spoken English I think ambiguities are resolved by timing. E.g. "big (pause) cats and dogs" vs "big cats (pause) and dogs"

In written English, there is definitely no universal grammatical rule about this, which is to say, there are cases where the adjective probably distributes:

Tall men and women sometimes have a hard time finding clothing.

and cases where it almost certainly doesn't

My elderly mother and nephew live in our house.

It's all just a game of logically inferring the speaker/writer's intention

  • If the second noun feels out of place or not specific enough without the adjective, then almost certainly apply it, e.g. medical personnel and equipment.

  • If the nouns pair together, and the adjective makes sense on both, then the adjective probably is applied to both, e.g. "young men and women"

  • If the adjective doesn't make sense on the second noun, it probably doesn't apply, e.g. "red apples and bananas"

  • Otherwise it's ambiguous like Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" (I always forget if the ham is green or not)

Without the full sentence/context it's hard to make a guess as to the intention, but "control" feels too vague/unspecified. Therefore I imagine it's "operational control".

  • Yes, the ham is also green. :-) But you're absolutely right that it's just ambiguous in English.
    – stangdon
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 16:03

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