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The subject of politics arose in the pub this afternoon (as it should not, really, but there you are), and the question of whether it was correct to describe a particular party as a "lying gang of scum", or a "gang of lying scum" came to the fore quickly (as it will, in discussions of politics).

Could anyone suggest which is correct, or (if both) which is preferable?

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This reminds me of the story of the zoo janitor. One evening, as he was carrying the sweepings of the Great Cats exhibition to the compost heap, the bag tangled in his legs and he fell down a steep flight of stairs. His coworkers found him at the bottom, bruised and bloodied, and asked him "Who pushed you?" Whereupon he answered, "Some lion sack of crap." –  MT_Head May 22 '11 at 22:44
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It reminds me of Colossal Cave: You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all different. You are in a twisty maze of little passages, all different. You are in a little twisty maze of passages, all different. –  MετάEd Jan 14 '13 at 7:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

These are both correct, but the two structures have different meanings. However, in your particular example, with the adjective lying, there is effectively no difference.

Imagine if you replace lying with the word enormous.

  • Enormous gang of scum
  • Gang of enormous scum

Either the gang as a whole is enormous or the individual members are enormous.

The difference with lying is that a lying gang is automatically interpreted as one where its individual members lie, because lying is something only individuals can do. So a gang of lying scum is effectively the same thing as a lying gang of scum.

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Thank you, Kosmonaut. I'll remember that word-replacement trick, as it will probably save several similar questions in future. –  Brian Hooper Jan 3 '11 at 9:11

Either is more or less correct in my view, though I would probably opt for the latter (lying scum), since it is more accurately the "scum" to whom the description "lying" is applied. "Gang" is more of an abstract concept - a group of people - you're less likely to attribute laziness to that.

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Thank you, Noldorin. –  Brian Hooper Jan 3 '11 at 9:12

I think they're both correct, but with possibly slightly different meanings. I don't think Kosmonaut is right to say that "lying is something only individuals can do". A gang can collectively tell a lie, especially if that gang is a political party. 'Manifesto commitments' could very well be lies.

So perhaps if you're more interested in emphasising the tendancy of individual politicians to tell lies then you should call the party a gang of lying scum, but if you want to emphasise the tendancy of the party as a whole to tell lies then it is a lying gang of scum.

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