I'm trying to avoid ambiguity when writing a list of items. My confusion comes from describing one item using multiple adjectives versus a list of similar items. My examples are:

1) I ate green apples, yellow apples, and red apples.

2) I ate green, yellow, and red apples.

Is the second sentence equivalent to the first sentence? If not, would the second sentence refer to a batch of apples, where a single apple in the batch exhibits all the colors mentioned?

  • You can not avoid ambiguity in English. it's Just That Simple. All "ambiguity!" questions are closed for reasons of not torturing readers. They are almost as bad as "I have proof it should be spelled phish!" questions, and the ever-joyful "WHY do these two words sound and look almost the same?!" questions
    – Fattie
    Jun 11, 2015 at 5:54
  • It sounds like you eat apples of any color. I have never seen white, gray, blue, brown or purple ones. Jun 12, 2015 at 6:53
  • See What quantity am I saying here? Nov 8, 2021 at 11:20

3 Answers 3


You ask an interesting question. Whether the modifiers are understood to refer to a single item from the group, or to different items from the group, is likely inferred from the item semantics. If it cannot be inferred, then it will be ambiguous (and may be interpreted differently by different people).

Consider two examples:

I like red, yellow, and green apples.

Here it will generally be assumed that you mean individual apples that are either red, yellow, or green, not apples that are tricolored, because we have some knowledge of what apples look like.

I like red, white, and blue flags.

Here it will generally be assumed that you mean tricolor flags, because most readers will be familiar with flags that have multiple colors, and perhaps less familiar with single-color flags. However, interpretations may vary.

To remove the ambiguity, replace "and" with "or":

I like red, white, or blue flags.

Now it is clear that you mean individual flags that are only one of the acceptable colors. However, it is a bit more natural to make it clear that "or" refers to the colors, not whether you like them:

I like flags that are red, white, or blue.

This construction also makes it easy to unambiguously specify tricolored preferences:

I like flags that are red, white, and blue.


Yes, your second sentence is the same as the first. I believe it would also be the most common way of saying what types of apples you ate.


I understand your confusion regarding how an adjective modifies its corresponding noun (or nouns). The two sentences are not exactly the same, but could be read the same. Who's to say that the first sentence isn't referring to a batch of apples? If you hadn't qualified it thus, readers might have the impression the two sentences mean the exact same thing. Avoiding ambiguity in this case may be unaided by your use of adjectives. The first sentence however seems too encumbered by the same noun, apple, and therefore would benefit by being reworded.

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