# In the phrase "No more than two cats or dogs", how many total pets are possible?

It seems this phrase can be read in two ways:

A) No more than 2 (cats or dogs) [2 total]

B) No more than 2 cats or (2) dogs [4 total]

Does this phrase have a singular meaning, or is it ambiguous?

• I would say 2 total. Apr 26, 2015 at 0:47
• I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about logic not about English Language and Usage.
– tchrist
Apr 26, 2015 at 1:17
• It is technically ambiguous, but would be understood by most native English speakers (in the US) to mean two total. Apr 26, 2015 at 1:44
• To be on the safe side, I would limit myself to one cat, one dog, and a herd of elephants. Apr 26, 2015 at 3:37
• "No more than 2 [either cats or dogs] (are allowed)" But as Sven Yargs' suggested, the keeping of a herd of elephants is not specifically prohibited. :) Apr 26, 2015 at 3:51

The phrase is ambiguous. The fact that you are asking this question in the first place shows that it is a poorly worded phrase.

I don't see any ambiguity. By the use of the word or, the phrase means you may have up to two cats or two dogs. Because it sidesteps the question of having one of each, I would guess that the writer of the contract didn't consider such a possibility. Neither does it seem the writer thought to exclude monkeys, elephants or any other weird pet choices.

A tighter wording might have been "No more than two pets (limited to dogs, cats or one of each)."

2 total, because the structure is [2 [ cats or dogs ]]. The only apparent alternative is [ [2 cats] or [dogs]], but if this were the structure, the interpretation of [no more than [[2 cats] or [dogs]]] wouldn't make sense. "no more than" applies to a quantity of some sort, but what is the quantity of [[2 cats] or [dogs]] ? It doesn't have a quantity.

I don't see any ambiguity in the phrase. My take on it is 2 pets maximum - [2 dogs] or [2 cats] or even [1 dog, 1 cat].

• And hey, who wouldn't want two dogs? :) Apr 26, 2015 at 22:33

Theoretically it could mean up to two cats or any number of dogs, but nobody will understand it that way. (If this were intended, one would always express it as dogs or no more than two cats.) Therefore cats and dogs must be bracketed together, i.e. the number of cats or dogs is limited to at most two.

Technically, the difference between up to two cats or dogs (up to two cats or up to two dogs) and up to two cats and dogs is that the former excludes the combination of one cat and one dog, whereas the latter allows it. (There is also a much less likely reading of up to two cats and dogs which allows two cats plus two dogs, but let's ignore this.) In reality, it is less likely that the combination of one cat and one dog is meant to be excluded than that no more than two cats and dogs was erroneously combined with just plain cats or dogs. As we understand these connections intuitively, almost everybody will interpret both variants in the same way.

So the total number of (cat/dog) animals is limited to a maximum of two, and the combination of 1 cat + 1 dog is probably allowed.

I don't see any ambiguity in this statement. The reading "two cats or dogs" specifically means "two cats or two dogs" and clearly does not mean the same as "two cats AND two dogs".

• So one can't have one dog and one cat?? Apr 26, 2015 at 1:54
• See my answer above. I suspect the person who wrote that didn't give that combination any consideration. That would then be a legal question, not a grammar question. Apr 26, 2015 at 21:48