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What constructions allow a writer to preserve strict logical coherence and reduce redundancy when conjuncting two noun-phrases?

Example

Many cultures have used gold or silver bullion as a currency.

That sentence could imply that many cultures have used gold -in any form- or silver -only when cast as- bullion, but I intended it to mean that many cultures have used gold bullion or silver bullion as a currency. Moreover, a reader could interpret the sentence to mean that many cultures have used gold -in any form, for any purpose- or silver -only when cast as- bullion -and only- as a currency.

How can I construct that sentence to ensure it imparts only the meaning I intend it to impart?

  • The answer is probably don't write it in English! "Many cultures have utilized gold and/or silver bullion as a currency". – Elliott Frisch Jan 8 '14 at 5:10
  • No harm in leaving gold with a trailing hyphen, thus helping semantically, without being otherwise incorrect: gold- or silver bullion – Kris Jan 8 '14 at 6:57
  • @Kris: I thought of that too, but, for proper parallelism, you'd want two hyphens, right? gold- or silver-bullion. I'm not too keen on this, as one wouldn't ordinarily hyphenate silver bullion on its own. – Daniel Harbour Jan 9 '14 at 6:57
  • @DanielHarbour At first blush, I like what Kris suggests - but your last comment about parallelism makes a lot of sense. I'm curious what the authorities would say. – Hal Jan 12 '14 at 14:47
  • @Hal: The authorities in this case would be style manuals, rather than grammarians. So, you should cite your preferred manuals. I like The Economist’s, but they don’t seem to address this. They do though quote the Oxford University Press style manual: “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.” – Daniel Harbour Jan 12 '14 at 22:31
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To avoid the first ambiguity, obviously you could write:

Many cultures have used gold bullion or silver bullion as currency.

Given that repetition of bullion disambiguates your current phrasing, this isn’t redundant (so, it meets the criteria in your question), but it isn’t the prettiest sentence going.

To avoid the repetition, you might rely on the bullion’s being defined in a few dictionaries that I’ve checked as pertaining specifically to gold and silver. (Some mention, e.g., lead bullion, but I get the impression that this is like butter always meaning the milk product, unless preceded by, say, peanut). In that case you could go for either of the following:

Many cultures have used (gold or silver) bullion as currency.

Many cultures have used bullion, either of gold or silver, as currency.

(Note that I’ve omitted a before currency, as it seems superfluous; in the broader context of what you’re writing it may not be, however.)

Regarding the second part of your question, I think it unlikely that readers would take you to mean that bullion had no other use, but, if you really want to avoid any risk of misinterpretation, you could write:

Many cultures have used (gold or silver) bullion as currency, inter alia.

Many cultures have used bullion, either of gold or silver, for currency (as well as for other purposes).

There are numerous other options.

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