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How should this long sentence with multiple "and"s

Property taxes and other local taxes and state taxation and spending may not be ... .

be understood? Notice, there is no punctuation near the occurrences of "and" (actual text is Article IX § 25 of the Michigan Constitution).

Should each item between the "and" be treated completely separate from all the other items?

  • Property taxes may not be ...
  • Other local taxes may not be ...
  • State taxation may not be ...
  • Spending may not be ...

Or, do you group the "and"s in the only way that can be uniformly done:

{Property taxes and other local taxes} and {state taxation and spending} may not be ...

or, perhaps slightly different

{Property taxes and other local taxes} and state {taxation and spending} may not be ...

What punctuation might be added to make a particular reading more clear? (Of course, legally, that can't be done; but it could help make the case for a certain understanding over another.)

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  • I'd look at the preceding text (no, I'm not going to look it up myself) to work out from the context where the groupings are. On my first reading I saw it the way you did: {Property taxes and other local taxes} and {state taxation and spending} may not be ... Dec 18, 2014 at 0:32
  • Otherwise it should have been Property taxes, other local taxes, state taxation, and spending may not be ... Dec 18, 2014 at 0:33
  • Probably just a single comma would be enough: Property taxes and other local taxes, and state taxation and spending may not be... Dec 18, 2014 at 0:53
  • The only other interpretations I can think of make the assumption that the original writer made a typographical error. But if I start with the assumption that they knew what they were doing, I would only read it the way we've said. Dec 18, 2014 at 0:59
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    I think sematically the 4 ands are equivalent to a comma separated list. There's no reason to prefer to group the first 2 and last 2, rather than the middle 2
    – Oldcat
    Dec 18, 2014 at 1:19

3 Answers 3

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As with all such ambiguities, the proper interpretation is multiple: it is the union of all possible reasonable interpretations. As an interpreter, you get to choose what interpretations occur to you and which you think are reasonable.

IOW, it means whatever it could possibly mean, whatever people might understand or misunderstand by it. Nothing more or less.

If you want something that has less ambiguity then you need to write more clearly. Commas help sometimes. Splitting sentences helps sometimes. And so on.

If you want to ask a more specific question, one that, for example, asks for some possible (mis)interpretations of a given phrase or sentence, then please do. But throwing a sentence out there that clearly (as you yourself note) has multiple interpretations and asking what it means is asking for the answer I stated in the first paragraph.

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I'd look at the surrounding context to confirm the groupings, but the most likely interpretation (assuming the author made no typographical errors) is:

{Property taxes and other local taxes} and {state taxation and spending} may not be ...

In other words,

  • All local taxes (including property taxes) may not be ...
  • State taxation and spending may not be ...

A comma may have made it clearer, e.g.:

Property taxes and other local taxes, and state taxation and spending may not be ...

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  • There are arguments from both syntax and semantics, both based on the logic of interpretation (i.e. start by assuming the writer wrote the way they did deliberately). If the writer wanted to give a list it would be make it less clear to use multiple and's - they should use commas (e.g. Property taxes, other local taxes, state taxation, and spending may not be...). Since they didn't choose this, one can can make the inference that the and's convey more meaning than just delimiting a list. Dec 18, 2014 at 3:49
  • From the semantic point of view we can bolster this claim; for example, "and other local taxes" implies that the "property taxes" here are merely one example from a set. Dec 18, 2014 at 3:50
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I think that all the words separated by 'and' at the beginning of the sentence comprise the subject. The following material will apply equally to all of them.

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  • I'd expect commas and one final 'and' were this interpretation intended. Mind you, I wouldn't expect to see anything so ambiguous. Dec 18, 2014 at 5:41

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