In a sentence which uses multiple verbs and multiple nouns, is there a way to logically show which verb corresponds to which noun(s)?


 1. I like to buy and eat fish and chips.

(Both verbs apply to both nouns.)

 2. I like to drink and watch football and cricket.

(Second verb applies to both nouns. The first applies to neither.)

Do we have to rely entirely on context?

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    "Fish and chips", since it refers to a definite object, is a singular noun, so saying "both nouns" is not exact... – Alenanno Jun 6 '11 at 7:53
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    @Alenanno: True, but the same question would arise if fish and chips were changed to sweets and cakes. – psmears Jun 6 '11 at 8:42
  • @psmears: good point :D I was just referring to that, but I see your point :) – Alenanno Jun 6 '11 at 10:30

For sentences structured like the example - you are right, context (and pragmatics) are all: without any context to suggest otherwise, "buy" needs an object, so the object must be shared, and since "football and cricket" is not a suitable object for "drink", we understand the intransitive sense of that verb (to drink alcohol).

For situations where confusion might arise, there are plenty of possible strategies to make it clear what is intended, for example:

I like to buy fish and chips and eat it.

I like to drink and I like to watch football and cricket.

I like to drink while watching football and cricket.

I like to watch football and cricket and drink. (here we assume the speaker doesn't like watching drink!)

  • +1 I was wondering how you think this sounds: "I like to drink, and watch football and cricket." – Tragicomic Jun 6 '11 at 9:17
  • @Tragicomic: That works well too :) – psmears Jun 6 '11 at 9:30
  • It seems that that corresponding content questions differ in acceptability: What did you buy and eat? is natural, but What did you drink and watch? less so. I wonder why? – jyc23 Jun 10 '11 at 2:49
  • @jyc23: Interesting... – psmears Jun 10 '11 at 8:07

In some contexts "respectively" will resolve the ambiguity, but not in all (eg your second example), so it is not a general solution.

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    +1 Though respectively might be a bit too formal for the football sentence, it is generally a useful word in more complicated sentences of this type. You might consider adding an example sentence and explaining in brief how it works. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 6 '11 at 13:30

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