1

I left the pub with my friend, Simon and Terry.

I think this sentence can be understood from two ways:

  1. I left the pub with two people (My friend Simon and Terry).
  2. I left the pub with three people (my unnamed friend, Simon and Terry).

Is this sentence ambiguous? If it is, how to improve it to make it clear? If not, what does it mean?

  • 2
    Perhaps in writing it might be ambiguous, but in speech the intonation pattern would make things clear. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 25 '15 at 1:30
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    "I left the pub with my friend Simon, and Terry." (2P), "I left the pub with my friends, Simon and Terry." (2P) or "I left the pub with my friend, Simon, and Terry." (3P). – user3169 Dec 25 '15 at 3:19
  • If Simon is to be an appositive to my friend, then both "with my friend, Simon and Terry" and "with my friend Simon, and Terry" have an unbalanced comma situation. Either completely set off the appositive by commas or do not use commas at all. grammar.com/appositive – shoover Apr 20 '17 at 19:10
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It is a bit ambiguous. A better way to phrase this, in writing or in speech, would be to move "my friend" to the end by itself if it's referring to a separate individual, or move "my friend Simon" to the end similarly if that's meant instead. "Terry and my friend Simon" is not at all ambiguous; neither is "Simon, Terry, and my friend".

In both cases, there's a useful principle: move any descriptive phrase that can potentially modify all following items in the list to as late as possible in the list. This shows that all items that do follow it are intended to be modified.

(If, instead, you wanted to refer to your friend Simon and your friend Terry, you'd say "my friends Simon and Terry", of course.)

2

If Simon is your friend and Terry is not, a crude representation of the syntactic pauses would go like this:

Speech: I left the pub {with my friend Simon} ... and Terry.

the phrase "with my friend Simon" would be contiguous. The pauses would also be corroborated with some pitch changes, but they're too difficult to represent.

If neither Simon nor Terry is your friend, and you are leaving with your unnamed friend and Simon and Terry:

I left the pub {with my friend} .... Simon .... and Terry.

The phrase {with my friend} would be contiguous, and again there would be intonation corroboration. Each of the three noun-phrases representing those three people are likely to be given equal time in the utterance, if Simon and Terry were not perceived as a duo. In speech, we tend to "punctuate" lists with pauses between the items.

These pauses and tonal patterns are subconscious or "second nature". The speaker wouldn't be thinking about where to put them, or how to intone the phrases, and the listener would not be struggling to decode them.

To disambiguate in writing, you would not express the idea as a list of those who were with you, because the equality of items in a list does not reflect the nuances of the actual personal relationships.

I left the pub with my friend, Simon. Terry went with us.
You and Simon; and Terry.

I left the pub with my friend. Simon and Terry went with us.
You;your friend; Simon and Terry (a possible duo).

I left the pub with my friend. Simon went with us, and so did Terry.
You; your friend; Simon; Terry.

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