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I have been asked to make symbolic translation of an English sentence during a formal logic exam, which I believed to be rather ambiguous. The TA asserted that the sentence is not ambiguous, and the reason why we cannot see the clear meaning is that we are not native English speakers. The sentence is exactly as follows:

If either a war or a depression occurs then neither science nor music and literature will flourish unless the government supports research and provides patronage for artists.

Here I see two connectives, if-then and unless, and no commas what-so-ever, which allows me to interpret the sentence in two different ways:

  1. If either a war or a depression occurs, then [neither science nor music and literature will flourish unless the government supports research and provides patronage for artists].

    if (either a war or a depression occurs) then
    |   unless (the government supports research and provides patronage for artists)
    |   |   neither science nor music and literature will flourish
    |   end-unless
    end-if
    
  2. [If either a war or a depression occurs, then neither science nor music and literature will flourish] unless the government supports research and provides patronage for artists.

    unless (the government supports research and provides patronage for artists)
    |   if (either a war or a depression occurs) then
    |   |   neither science nor music and literature will flourish
    |   end-if
    end-unless
    

My question is: Does one of those two connectives have some sort of precedence over the other to disambiguate the sentence? Is one of those two any stronger than the other?

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    #2 isn't an acceptable parse. The clause following the semicolon isn't independent. – deadrat Dec 18 '15 at 9:55
  • I can see no difference between 1. and 2., except that in 2. "unless government supports..." sounds like an afterthought. – Jacinto Dec 18 '15 at 9:56
  • Do you think it is correct to use neither science nor music and literature? I think this is more related to logic than punctuation. – user140086 Dec 18 '15 at 9:58
  • 1
    As said, your punctuation in 2. is not valid—but even if it were, it doesn't really change the meaning of the sentence. Just read from the beginning and follow the argument as presented. The meaning is quite clear. – ralph.m Dec 18 '15 at 10:18
  • @deadrat I was using (apparently misusing) semicolon to denote that the "unless" part in that particular interpretation is against everything that comes before it. I have changed the question a little to make what I'm trying to say more clear. – ThoAppelsin Dec 18 '15 at 16:08
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Let's generalise your sentence, to make discussing it easier. We can make it:

If A then B unless C.

This can be rephrased to your option 1:

If A and (Not C) then B

Your option 2 is equivalent to:

If (Not C) and A then B

Although you have changed the order, in terms of logic these are completely identical. There is no ambiguity.


With regards to how I would interpret it: the "unless C" modifies the "B".

I can theoretically understand that we could say "If A then B" is statement D, and statement D is modified by "unless C". I cannot think of any grammatical rule which precludes this. But when I read the original sentence as a whole my mind will not parse it that way.

  • I have edited the question a little bit to make it more clear about what I'm seeing as I look at that sentence. – ThoAppelsin Dec 18 '15 at 16:06
  • @ThoAppelsin - I've revised my answer now that I understand your question better. – AndyT Dec 18 '15 at 16:31
  • This fact (both of them being logically equivalent), I already know. I am asking this question in terms of English. There are many other interpretations which are logically equivalent to these two, but it wouldn't be sensible to interpret this sentence as such. My question is: Is it sensible to interpret such a sentence in those two distinct ways or not? – ThoAppelsin Dec 18 '15 at 20:27
  • @ThoAppelsin - OK, revised again. Not sure if it as equivocal an answer as you would like, and it's only an opinion, but I've done my best. – AndyT Dec 21 '15 at 9:09

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