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Can you grab the blue shirts and socks?

Is the above sentence stipulating 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.

A related problem is shown in

We saw a man watching the birds and two squirrels.

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    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?" Oct 6, 2013 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, 2013 at 4:41
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    It's ambiguous, but usually the modifiers only apply to both nouns if the second noun has no modifiers of its own. Oct 6, 2013 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, 2013 at 7:00
  • 'Do you own any blue ties or cravats?' shows similar ambiguity, though here the extended-scope variant is probably more likely. May 2, 2021 at 15:27

2 Answers 2

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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.’

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    Yes, language is not a formal system. It is something that "just happened", and it sometimes includes ambiguities.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 6, 2013 at 9:37
  • Similarly with disjunctions: "Have you seen any blue shirts or socks?" Jan 3, 2021 at 19:36
  • And with premodifiers joined by 'and' etc: the red and blue mugs proved popular. Jan 5 at 14:19
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Can you grab the blue shirts and socks?

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

Neither. It is ambiguous.

For clarity, you need either syntax:

Can you grab the socks, and the blue shirts? (NB the comma)

Or a repeated adjective

Can you grab the blue socks and blue shirts?

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