If someone says "Today I bought trendy shirts and shoes.", does he imply that even the shoes are trendy? In general, if you have sentences of the form ADJECTIVE NOUN1 and NOUN2, does the adjective apply to second noun as well?

Well, here it is not a big deal but I have come across some legal, technical documents where this can make a big difference.

  • 3
    Then you will have to ask a lawyer, not us.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 3:52
  • 2
    It implies either poor drafting or clever drafting.
    – Kris
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 7:00
  • It means either that both the shirts and the shoes are trendy, or that the shirts alone are trendy. There is no way to know for sure, apart from logic. “He gave her some translated poetry and flowers for her birthday”, for instance, is not likely to be misunderstood, since flowers are rarely translated. Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 7:54
  • It can mean either, even in a legal context. Deciding what is meant here is a complicated issue involving an examination of the intent of the drafters, prior decisions, which reading is more appropriate to achieve the intended goal, etc. Though not formally qualified, I like to give opinions on the reading of legal texts, but without all the details that's definitely impossible.
    – user86291
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 11:22

2 Answers 2


Not always (see the comments). Unless there is a clear reason not to apply the adjective to both, then the adjective applies to both. Better writers tend to avoid constructions like this unless they are crystal clear, because of the problem you've discovered.


Now for something really stupid. Let's draft a statute criminalizing failure to wear trendy apparel. 'All citizens are required to wear trendy shirts and shoes and all apparel worn must be trendy. Failure to wear trendy apparel is punishable by not less than 1 year in prison or a fine of $10,000 or both." Sherry Flip is arrested while walking in the park. Although the shirt she wore was trendy, she was wearing Birkenstocks on her feet which are not trendy. At trial she is found innocent. Why?

The 'Plain Meaning Rule' requires statutes to be interpreted as it would be by 'an ordinary or reasonable person'. A reasonable person would think the adjective 'trendy' is used to describe shirts and not shoes since the legislature gave a lot of thought to drafting this statute. Therefore, the legislature only required the wearing of shoes--trendy or not.

'Ejusdem Generis'(of the same kind)--a doctrine used to interpret loosely written statutes. The general statements only apply to the same kind of persons or things specifically listed. The general statement 'all apparel must be trendy' applies only to shirts since apparel is defined as clothing which shoes are not.

'Noscitur a Sociis' (it is known from its associates)--The doctrine suggests that you can determine the meaning of an ambiguous term by reference to the words associated with it.It is a useful doctrine for determining how broadly or narrowly a term should reasonably be interpreted. A reasonable person might conclude that 'shoes' is subject to a broad interpretation since the legislature seemed to add 'shoes' as an afterthought to their fight against untrendy 'apparel' by not specifically identifying the type of shoes required by the statute.

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