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Match the two sentences with their meaning:

1) I had a discussion with a friend and a programmer.

2) I had a discussion with a friend, and a programmer.

Meanings:

a) I talked to a friend who is a programmer.

b) I talked to two people, a friend, and a programmer.

Intuitively, I know that 1 => b, and 2 => a. Is there a rule? Does this grammatical construct have a formal name or definition?

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14  
"Let's eat, Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat Grandma!" –  user362 Nov 30 '11 at 14:09
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"A woman, without her, man is nothing." vs "A woman without her man, is nothing." –  thursdaysgeek Nov 30 '11 at 21:41
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I agree with Kris's answer that both sentences have meaning 2. To achieve meaning 1 within the confines of your given sentence structure, I think you have to go for "I had a discussion with a friend and programmer." –  Hellion Nov 30 '11 at 22:48
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Sometimes a sentences can be interpreted in two different ways without comma, like: "call me a cab" :) –  Meysam Dec 11 '11 at 8:39
    
No "accepted" answer, yet? –  Kris Dec 14 '11 at 6:29
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5 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

"I had a discussion with a friend and a programmer" does not mean "I talked to a friend who is a programmer". Both 1) and 2) have the same meaning b). However, the use of comma before and is now discouraged by some and flagged by some software.

For the first meaning, you would say "I had a discussion with my friend, a programmer" or better still, "I had a discussion with a programmer friend".

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Generally, grammatical errors are difficult to identify and rectify in speech. Reading and writing will help in this case. –  Kris Nov 30 '11 at 12:42
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I meant that it was semantically unlikely that 'friend' and 'programmer' would appear like this in the same sentence. 'I had a discussion with a web designer and a programmer' would of course be quite natural, and it would be clear that they were two different people. –  Barrie England Nov 30 '11 at 13:01
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Not using the comma before and (the serial comma) can make a phrase ambiguous; try interpreting the following phrase: "To my parents, the Pope and Mother Theresa." –  kiamlaluno Nov 30 '11 at 13:08
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This question would not be complete without a reference to the marvellous book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" and the joke it takes its title from. –  DJClayworth Nov 30 '11 at 21:12
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@MartinBeckett: Only Americans avoid punctuation in legal documents. The rest of the English-speaking world finds punctuation to be an aid to comprehension. –  Marcin Dec 11 '11 at 15:16
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1) I had a discussion with a friend and a programmer. - This could be one or two people.
2) I had a discussion with a friend, and a programmer. - This sentence is wrong. The comma is incorrect there, whether this describes one or two people.
a) I talked to a friend who is a programmer. - This is only one person.
b) I talked to two people, a friend, and a programmer. - This is not two people. This indicates FOUR people! (two people, plus a friend, plus a programmer)

Regarding B: If you want two people here, use "I talked to two people: a friend and a programmer." "A friend and a programmer" will be a non-restrictive appositive for "two people."

If you want one person and no ambiguity, you could write "I talked to my friend, a programmer" or "I talked to my friend, who is a programmer," or "I talked to a programmer, who is a friend." Other options are possible.

None of these is a case of the serial comma creating confusion. For example of that, see "A Serial Comma Creates Confusion" - http://zencomma.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/a-serial-comma-creates-confusion/

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This could be considered as an example of ambiguity introduced by an Oxford comma.

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There should not be a comma before and in any case as there are only two items.

I had a discussion with a friend and a programmer

could mean either you had a discussion with two people or only one who is both a friend and a programmer, but in the absence of further context, it is usually taken to mean the former.

For example, it would be clear and correct if you had written

I had a discussion with a friend and a programmer. His name is Darren.

This would mean that you had a discussion with Darren who is both your friend and a programmer.

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Kris claims that both 1 and 2 have meaning b. You disagree with that. Can you give me a reason, please? –  Mohamad Nov 30 '11 at 12:47
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protected by Jasper Loy Jun 6 '12 at 19:12

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