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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?

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2 Answers 2

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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.

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

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