Conjunctions: Conjunctions and ambiguity

Look at this sentence:

  • Can I have cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch?

Do you think the speaker wants sandwiches filled with cheese and tomato or some cheese, and sandwiches with a tomato filling?

Native speakers probably know what cheese and tomato sandwiches are, but they don't realise that the phrase is actually ambiguous (has more than one meaning).

Note that tomato sandwiches is not ambiguous. The Head is the noun sandwiches, and tomato is a modifier of the Head. We could add further modifiers in sequence before the noun: large tasty tomato sandwiches, but there is still only one possible interpretation.

So why do we have an ambiguity when we say cheese and tomato sandwiches? The answer concerns the conjunction and. Here are the two meanings of this phrase, combined with brackets to show which parts belong together in the two interpretations:

  • sandwiches filled with cheese and tomato
[[cheese and tomato] sandwiches]
  • cheese, plus sandwiches with a tomato filling
[cheese] and [tomato sandwiches]

Fundamentally, we can never know for sure what the speaker meant to say. We have to guess. The more we know about the world, the speaker’s interests, the situation of utterance, and so on, the better our guess.

Think about how this ambiguity might apply to your own writing and speaking.

  • Are there times when you might want to be ambiguous?
  • When might you want to express yourself as clearly as possible?
  • What might you do to make the phrase cheese and tomato sandwiches less ambiguous when you are speaking or writing?

Ambiguity can also affect other parts of a noun phrase.

Here are some more examples, this time from the ICE-GB corpus. Think about each one and ask yourself how you might decide what the most likely meaning is.

  • They were badly fed and cold and wet [S1A-087 #255]

Could they have been badly cold and badly wet?

  • ...they’re so dogmatic and set in their ways [S1A-047 #100]

Were they so dogmatic in their ways and set in their ways?

  • seem to be quite confident and able to answer the questions [S1A-081 #163]

Do you think the addressee was quite confident to answer the questions and quite able to anwer the questions?

If we wanted to spell out the two different interpretations of the first of these examples we might use brackets like this:

    1.  [badly fed] and [cold] (badly applies to fed but not cold)
    2.  badly [fed and cold] (badly applies to both fed and cold)

But when we write, we don’t usually use brackets. This is only a notation to help you think about the ambiguity!

We could use punctuation, however:

  1. They were badly fed, and cold and wet
  2. They were badly fed and cold and wet
  3. They were badly fed - and cold, and wet

Similarly, when speaking aloud, we might pause after fed if we thought what we said was ambiguous. Unfortunately, the comma, hyphen or pause might also be left out because we didn’t feel it was necessary, not because we actually meant badly cold. Often we don’t spot ambiguity in our own sentences, and only when someone asks us what we meant, or seems to take what we said the wrong way, would we explain what we meant. In writing, of course, you can’t always do this. If you are writing a book or newspaper article, your audience won’t come back to you immediately (although with email and chat the situation is a bit different). So when people write books, articles and formal letters they check everything several times. This is a good idea. It shows that you understand what you are writing. Authors have editors who tidy up their writing. But ideally you should be able to do this yourself.


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