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For this question, please bear in mind that or denotes [[either or both]].

I need to express that Mary will go to the movies with, either one of, or both of, Jane and John.

Jane or John and Mary will go to the movies.

Aside from adding punctuation, I cannot amend the sentence.

How should I punctuate the sentence?

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  • It does work without punctuation, but Jane, or John and Mary, will go to the movies may be clearer. – Anonym Mar 10 '14 at 17:49
  • It could be interpreted to mean either, [[John and Mary will certainly go to the movies; whereas, Jane may or may not go to the movies with them.]], or [[Mary will certainly go to the movies. Jane may or may to go to the movies with her. John may or may not go to the movies with her.]]. I want to express the latter. – Hal Mar 10 '14 at 18:00
  • My bad. I recommend recasting the sentence as Either Jane or John will go to the movies with Mary. – Anonym Mar 10 '14 at 18:08
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    Aside from adding punctuation, I cannot amend the sentence. – Hal Mar 10 '14 at 20:52
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    I think you've set an impossible task then. Why can't you rewrite it? – Bradd Szonye Mar 11 '14 at 4:45
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  • Jane or John – and Mary – will go to the movies.

  • Jane or John, and Mary, will go to the movies.

In these versions, the expression “and Mary” is a supplement. The first version makes that more explicit than the second.

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  • This construction avoids half of the ambiguity of the original, in that it eliminates the possibility that Jane might go without Mary. However, I think any sort of pause or stress in the sentence will lead people to infer “either Jane or John, but not both,” which is problematic. Still, this is much better than most of the other answers, so +1. – Bradd Szonye Mar 11 '14 at 21:56
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The sentence already has the meaning you intend, but it's ambiguous. English speakers can use pauses and stress to resolve the ambiguity, but only in the direction of either, not both. For example:

Jane, or John, and Mary will go to the movies.

Unfortunately, that's the opposite of what you want, so punctuation alone won't help you here. The only way to emphasize the possibility of both is to recast the sentence to make it explicit:

Mary will go to the movies with Jane, John, or both.

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    It's possible that there's some exotic punctuation or oddball re-analysis of the sentence that could make it work, but that strikes me more as a word game or puzzle than realistic English usage. – Bradd Szonye Mar 11 '14 at 5:01
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Why aren't we allowed to amend the sentence? You're trying to make English work like mathematical logic. It doesn't.

Mary will go to the movies with Jane or John.

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Jane or John and Mary will go to the movies.

This can be parsed in English as:

Either Jane or John will go to the movies. Mary will also go to the movies.

Either Jane will go to the movies or John and Mary will both go to the movies.

If we assume an inclusive "or":

Either Jane or John or both will go to the movies. Mary will also go to the movies.

Either Jane will go to the movies, or John and Mary will both go to the movies, or everyone will go to the movies.

Moreover, none of the possibilities actually indicate that all those who go to the movies will go together, they might be going on different dates, in different countries etc.

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How about:

Jane (or John) and Mary will go to the movies.

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  • This reads to me as “Jane and Mary will probably go to the movies, but John might go instead of Jane,” which doesn't fit the meaning that the question is looking for. – Bradd Szonye Mar 11 '14 at 21:54

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