Have there been any solutions proposed for the ambiguity in sentences such as the following?

The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod‹,› and a dildo collector.

The problem is that although the comma which I have identified using ‹brackets› makes it clear that Nelson Mandela is not a dildo collector, it fails to clarify whether or not he is an 800-year-old demigod. Context clues notwithstanding, the sentence is semantically ambiguous.

Is there a way to use punctuation to resolve the ambiguity? Or does the sentence have to be reworded?


2 Answers 2


The ambiguities go away if you replace the commas with semicolons:

The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela; an 800-year-old demigod; and a dildo collector.

This is because semicolons do not also have the potential for marking off a parenthetical comment in the same way that commas do.

  • Is this semicolon thing grammatically correct? I guess I've just never seen a list with them Dec 17, 2014 at 3:50
  • Yes; semicolons are often used to disambiguate lists, especially when some of the list items are phrases that include the word and or parenthetical descriptions. A good example of this usage is contained in one of the comments appended to this Mental Floss article about the Oxford comma: "The guests we need to purchase gifts for are: My sister, the maid of honor; Emily, a bridesmaid and my best friend; Lily, another bridesmaid; Timmy, the best man; Eric, the other groomsman; and both our sets of parents."
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 17, 2014 at 10:45

You can always rephrase, of course: He met Mandela as well as a god and a collector.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.