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I have difficulty when there is more than adjective trying to modify more than one noun.

What is the meaning of this sentence? - "We have new and pre-owned cars and trucks"

Also, where can I obtain practice exercises so I become good at this task? Thanks

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Welcome Zodiak! This question is too basic here, but you might be interested to visit the new StackExchange proposal "English Language Learners" (ell.stackexchange.com). –  user19148 Mar 11 '13 at 22:11
This is not ambiguous: both adjectives apply to both nouns. –  tchrist Mar 11 '13 at 23:14
I think that question is not "too basic." The only thing that is too basic (and thus too easy) is the example of the OP -- but not its underlying question. There are cases of combinations of two or more nouns with two or more adjectives which cause severe problems. –  ClintEastwood Mar 12 '13 at 6:19
"In each room, there are two cabinets. The nurses keep clean sheets and blankets in them." This obviously means the nurses keep clean sheets and dirty blankets inside themselves. This isn't a matter of grammar, it's a matter of logic. –  David Schwartz Mar 12 '13 at 7:36
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marked as duplicate by MετάEd, tchrist, RegDwigнt Mar 12 '13 at 15:56

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

2 Answers

Note, however, that “We have ripe and tasty apples and oranges” means that we have ...

  • apples that are ripe and tasty, and
  • oranges that are ripe and tasty.

You always have to consider the context.

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I guess, there is more than one possible meaning to this sentence:

Meaning A: We have ...

  • new cars,
  • pre-owned cars,
  • new trucks,
  • pre-owned trucks.

Meaning B: We have ...

  • new cars,
  • pre-owned cars,
  • by the way, we also have trucks of all sorts -- in case you are interested.

99% of the people would understand your sentence according to meaning A -- much more so, since most people would treat cars and trucks in your example as one single composite, in which case you no longer have two nouns but virtually only one.

However, If you were to replace trucks by oranges, saying "We have new and pre-owned cars and oranges," then you get a different picture and 99,9% of the people would understand that sentence according to meaning B. As easy as your example appears at first glance, I am afraid, sentences like this can be more complicated and are indeed context related.

Compare the following sentences:

  1. We have new and pre-owned cars and trucks.
  2. We have new and pre-owned cars and oranges.
  3. We have new and pre-owned cars, and trucks.

Sentence #1 is the sentence of your question and could be regarded as ambiguous, because it is not clear whether the adjectives apply to trucks or only to cars. (However, I will later claim that it is, in fact, not ambiguous. See below.)

Sentence #2 shows a sentence with an identical structure, but I changed trucks to oranges. Here it would be clear from the context, that "new" and "pre-owned" most likely do not apply to oranges, but only to cars.

Sentence #3 shows how adding a comma can help to clarify the meaning. This sentence is identical in meaning with the Meaning B above.

So, why did I just say that in my opinion sentence #1 is not ambiguous? If people would always add that comma of sentence #3, we could easily distinguish in writing between Meaning B and Meaning A: With that comma (= sentence #3) we get Meaning B. Without that comma (= sentence #1) we get Meaning A.

This also entails that sentence #2 is, in terms of punctuation, sort-of wrong, as it actually needs a comma before "and oranges" -- a comma which is almost implicit through the context, though.

A note with respect to what has been said in the comments: In a previous version of this answer, I used the term Oxford comma as a means to name that comma of sentence #3, because that comma serves a similar purpose, so I borrowed the name "Oxford comma". It has ben suggested, though, to avoid that term altogether and I edited the answer accordingly.

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That is not an Oxford comma!!!! –  tchrist Mar 11 '13 at 22:20
@tchrist : An Oxford comma is usually used in cases of a series of at least three items before the last conjunction when appropriate. You are right, the comma I am talking about here is -- strictly speaking -- not an Oxford comma, but it serves a similar purpose. Therefore, I used its name in lack of another fancy comma name. –  ClintEastwood Mar 11 '13 at 22:29
Clint, shouldn't it be more proper to say "We have new and pre-owned cars, other than truck" in your "A" case. If so, can "B" case be what 99% of people understands hearing the OP's example? Lastly, since tchrist is right, why don't you edit the question avoiding completely to use "Oxford comma", rather than introducing a new definition of this famous concept? –  user19148 Mar 11 '13 at 22:56
@Carlo_R. : Yes this is exactly what I meant. Good point! I made it more clear and altered the answer accordingly, leaving out the Oxford comma. –  ClintEastwood Mar 12 '13 at 6:16
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