If I read the sentence

Find ten apples and oranges.

Do I need to find ten or twenty pieces of fruit?

  • 6
    Yes‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎. – tchrist Apr 25 '14 at 23:52
  • Ask, on math ;) – Kris Apr 26 '14 at 4:48
  • Maths has it sorted. 10(a + o) or 10a +yo or xa + yo where x + y = 10 (or even 10h where h is a hybrid). Using a, o and h as abbreviations rather than unknown numbers, but still subject to the laws of algebra, of course. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 26 '14 at 9:22
  • It depends on the context. – F.E. Apr 26 '14 at 17:05

I think its ambiguous. If the question was:

"Find ten apples and ten oranges." this is no ambiguity.

It is the writer's responsibility to communicate clearly and without ambiguity.

If you have to struggle to determine which of three or four possible questions is actually being asked, it's not YOUR fault, it's his.

  • So true but the spoken word is often culturally influenced, and our standard does not necessarily parallel – Third News Apr 26 '14 at 0:10
  • @ThirdNews You are correct, but we should always strive for clarity. – Gary's Student Apr 26 '14 at 0:19
  • Your point is valid but mine is that they believe they are speaking clearly; interpretation is a matter of cultural sensitivity – Third News Apr 26 '14 at 0:22
  • @ThirdNews We are in agreement...................... – Gary's Student Apr 26 '14 at 0:48
  • I agree it's ambiguous, but I think that if I was forced to pick an interpretation I'd go with 10 pieces of fruit total... Since they didn't specify, I default to the least specific understanding. Just my $0.02; +1! – WendiKidd Apr 26 '14 at 1:22

And can be both a distributive coordinator and a joint coordinator. So, for example, if a subject includes a distributive and, then the predicate applies equally and distinctly to both noun elements:

John and Mary live in London


John lives in London and Mary lives in London.

A subject including a joint and cannot be expanded in this way. So,

John and Mary are a happy couple

is incoherent as

John is a happy couple and Mary is a happy couple.

Often, however, there is no way to reliably interpret if the and is a distributive coordinator or a joint coordinator. For example:

John made cheese and cucumber sandwiches.

Did all the sandwiches consist of both cheese and cucumber (joint coordination) or did he make cheese sandwiches and also make cucumber sandwiches (distributive coordination)?

The OP's sentence Find ten apples and oranges is ambiguous in the same way.

There is a brief discussion of distributive / joint coordination in The Handbook of English Linguistics (Aarts).

  • For "John made cheese and cucumber sandwiches", there's a third possibility. Compare "John made tea and cucumber sandwiches". – Peter Shor Apr 26 '14 at 12:45
  • @PeterShor What's the third possibility? I'm intrigued but I wasn't able to figure it out myself from your comment :) – WendiKidd Apr 26 '14 at 14:43
  • @WendiKidd is that John is making cheese (not cheese sandwiches) and also making cucumber sandwiches. – Peter Shor Apr 26 '14 at 15:23
  • Ahh, I think I read the answer a bit too quickly. The "cheese sandwiches + cucumber sandwiches" option was actually the one that hadn't occurred to me. It's so interesting how many interpretations there can be of one sentence! – WendiKidd Apr 26 '14 at 15:26
  • And you can combine two of the interpretations to get the possibly zeugmatic sentence "John made cheese and cucumber sandwiches and tea and tomato sandwiches." – Peter Shor Apr 26 '14 at 15:31

It's like someone saying they "have three brothers and sisters".
Is that a total of six siblings or three? Do they have two brothers and one sister, or two sisters and one brother?

As a result we can read the OP's sentence as

  1. Find ten apples [and oranges] = 20 pieces of fruit (ten oranges being implied)
  2. Find ten [apples and oranges] = 10: any combination of the two types of fruit.

Possible variations which would avoid this ambiguity:

Find ten of each fruit: apples and oranges. (20)
Find ten apples and ten oranges. (20)
Find ten apples or ten oranges. (10)
Find ten fruit which are apples and oranges. (10)


S L Bayer, in ... events and arguments in compositional semantics discusses the different (and sometimes conflicting) usages demanded of 'and'. He concludes that 'ten apples and oranges' (or in his example 'ten men and women') is ambiguous not because some people use 'and' constructions in idiosyncratic ways, but because the ways 'and' is used in 'Standard English' necessarily give rise to alternative interpretations.

An article by L Champollion [top link] has:

...collectively interpreted conjunctions of plural nouns are in principle ambiguous as to the number of entities involved. So five men and women can involve reference to a total of ten people, with five men and five women ... or (more likely) to a total of five people, with some men and some women among them.

The sentence needs rephrasing.

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