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Consider the following coordination of two independent clauses (joined by "but"):

Homework is due in my office hour on Tuesday, but (emphasis added) you may hand it to me earlier, e.g., in lecture on Friday.

which immediately precedes this next sentence:

I am typically in my office from mid-morning to late afternoon.

My question is: can we infer from the order of the independent clauses in the first sentence that the second sentence should necessarily be thought to refer specifically to one of these two clauses? Specifically, does "mid-morning to late afternoon" qualify the time during which the writer will be in his office on Tuesday (when the homework is due), or should that be taken as a separate remark relating to the second independent clause about handing it in early? (Ignore for a moment the clue that the first independent clause refers to the singular office "hour".)

Intuitively, I feel that a sentence which refers to a clause in a previous sentence should be assumed to be referring to the main idea of the previous sentence (in my mind the first independent clause), and that if it was intended to refer to the second clause, this second sentence should have been included within parentheses inside the first sentence, after the second clause:

Homework is due in my office hour on Tuesday, but you may hand it to me earlier, e.g., in lecture on Friday (I am typically in my office from mid-morning to late afternoon).

In other words, I feel that by placing the period between the two sentences, in interpreting the meaning, we should associate any ambiguous reference to the prior sentence with the clause of that sentence containing the main idea, which would seem to preclude choosing any subordinate clause. However, because the word "but" was used to join the sentence, I have read that both clauses are independent, and it's not clear that we can say that one is important than the other, which would seem to imply that the meaning is perfectly ambiguous.

  • Can't one deduce that the second sentence is referring to the general availability of the professor here? It could equally well precede the other sentence. Can you think of an example where there is an obvious semantic constraint that the second sentence must refer to one and only one of the coordinated clauses? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 8 '15 at 22:23
  • Excellent point. As a logical statement, the second sentence stands on its own. – Jim Dec 8 '15 at 22:25
  • The second sentence, "I am typically in my office from mid-morning to late afternoon.", doesn't refer to any preceding sentence. So I can't figure out what your question is. – Greg Lee Dec 8 '15 at 22:37
  • Specifically, one can't even conclude that being in one's office implies that one is holding office "hours". I see now that I am attempting to make an inference about the relation between the two sentences which is not necessarily there. I would still be interested to know the answer to the technical question of convention of punctuation and clause order. I can't help but feel that superior style makes use of parentheses to join something like the second sentence to a clause other than the main idea, or relying on some convention. – Jim Dec 8 '15 at 22:40
  • Greg, you are correct. This is less a question about semantics, though, than style. Specifically, all else equal, if we assume that the second sentence refers to a clause in the first sentence, is there some convention that allows us to prefer one or the other? – Jim Dec 8 '15 at 22:42
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Unless the writer/professor has a posted office hour on Tuesday, I take these three independent statements to mean that "Homework is due on Tuesday during my office hours, which are usually between mid-morning and late afternoon; however, you may hand it to me earlier, [if you have already finished it] such as during the lecture on Friday."

I see no way that the third statement could refer to anything but the first.

  • As it happens, there is in fact a posted office hour (singular!) on Tuesday. Furthermore, I can reveal that the professor's intended meaning was that the extended times were in reference to the second clause of the first sentence (about handing the assignment in early). I suppose my question was more general than practical (i.e., was it good style to structure the sentence in the manner it was, given the intended meaning). – Jim Dec 9 '15 at 3:32
  • Thank you, Jim. That makes what the professor wrote even worse. Some of the most difficult writers who have hired me to edit their work have had Ph.D.s in their respective fields. I even have a friend who is a retired English teacher who persists in saying, "between he and I." I can't bring myself to correct her.... – Mark Hubbard Dec 9 '15 at 20:01

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