Can you grab the blue shirts and socks?

Is the above sentence stating that both the shirts and the socks are blue? Or only the shirts?

At this stage, I am leaning towards the earlier (only the shirts) — though writing "Can you grab the blue shirts and blue socks?" seems redundant.

  • 2
    The socks are blue. If you want to say that the socks aren't blue, you would say "can you grab the blue shirts and the socks?" – Peter Shor Oct 6 '13 at 4:25
  • Ok. I'm going to play devil's advocate for a moment - what happens if I say "blue shirts and small socks", are the socks still blue? And if yes, what happens if I say "blue shirts and red socks"? The first adjective (small) doesn't negate the blue, so the socks would be small and blue? But the second adjective (red) does negate the blue adjective, so the socks are no longer blue? So the rule would be, the adjective attached to the first noun in a conjunction applies to the second noun, unless the second noun has an adjective that negates it? – Chris Oct 6 '13 at 4:41
  • 1
    It's ambiguous, but usually the modifiers only apply to both nouns if the second noun has no modifiers of its own. – Bradd Szonye Oct 6 '13 at 5:36
  • I think if you were to stress the word, blue, in your sentence you'd be pointing out that while you do have different coloured shirts and socks, you're only interested in the blue ones. If you didn't care which colour socks they were, then saying "Can you grab the blue shirts and some or a pair of socks (while you're at it)" avoids the ambiguity. But if you're indifferent, you'd be just as happy with blue socks as you would with black ones. – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '13 at 7:00
  • 'Do you own any blue ties or cravats?' shows similar ambiguity, though here the extended-scope variant is probably more likely. – Edwin Ashworth May 2 at 15:27

It could that be both are blue, or it could be that only the shirts are blue. If the context didn’t make it clear, the speaker who wanted to avoid any doubt that it was both blue shirts and blue socks that were required would have to say something like ‘Can you grab the shirts and socks? Just the blue ones. I don’t want any other colours.’

  • 5
    Yes, language is not a formal system. It is something that "just happened", and it sometimes includes ambiguities. – Colin Fine Oct 6 '13 at 9:37
  • Similarly with disjunctions: "Have you seen any blue shirts or socks?" – Edwin Ashworth Jan 3 at 19:36

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