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I have a list in some technical writing, say: distributed computing, grid computing, and cloud computing.

I would like to make it more compact, such as: distributed, grid, and cloud computing. But this formulation is ambiguous, because the reader does not necessarily know that computing applies to all the previous words. Can I express this somehow, such as with hyphens, or is it best to write it completely out as in the first case?

closed as primarily opinion-based by NVZ, ab2, tchrist, Dan Bron, MetaEd Jul 21 '16 at 17:50

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    I would write it in full. As you say, your alternative form is ambiguous. The only hyphenated form I can think of would be "distributed-, grid-, and cloud-computing", which is both ugly and not strictly correct because - as you have already illustrated, you would not normally use hyphens for those expressions. The full form is only two extra words: why worry about it? – TrevorD Jul 1 '16 at 11:06
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    Ambiguity, thy name is English. If you can't afford ambiguity, don't write things in an ambiguous fashion. – Hot Licks Jul 1 '16 at 11:46
  • @HotLicks "Ambiguity, thy name is English." - Haven't heard that before. Did you make it up? – TrevorD Jul 1 '16 at 12:29
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    @TrevorD: "you would not normally use hyphens for those expressions" is right. So why do it here? It confuses more than clarifies, IMO. – Drew Jul 1 '16 at 13:36
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    It is not the best option to write it out completely. It is your only option to write it out completely. – RegDwigнt Jul 1 '16 at 14:21
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The only clear and unambiguous option is to write it in full:

distributed computing, grid computing, and cloud computing

As stated in the question, the more compact form:

distributed, grid, and cloud computing

is ambiguous. Another option could be to use a hyphenated form, such as:

distributed-, grid-, and cloud-computing

but that is both ugly and not strictly correct because — as already illustrated in the 'compact' format — you would not normally use hyphens for those expressions.

Moreover, the full form is only two words longer than either of the suggested, so it is hardly worth worry about if the expression is used only occasionally in the document.

If the expression were being used several times throughout a particular document, and depending on expected readership of the document, I might consider specifying a 'definition'at the beginning of the document. That could be done in a special 'Note', such as:

Note: For the sake of conciseness, throughout this document, the term "computing" is being used to refer jointly to "distributed computing, grid computing, and cloud computing" (unless the context obviously requires otherwise).

Alternatively, it could be done at the first use of the expression within the document; for example:

... distributed computing, grid computing, and cloud computing (For the sake of conciseness, throughout this document I shall refer simply to "distributed computing" but it should be understood as encompassing all of "distributed computing, grid computing, and cloud computing".)

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Reorder the wording. Specify the subject, then the different flavours of it.
In the example you cite, it would read as, "Computing: cloud, distributed, and grid."
In another iteration in could be, "computing—cloud, distributed, and grid."
This would save some repetition without uncertainty.

  • But that would work only if the list were used as a (sub-)title. OP appears to want to use the list in mid-sentence. – TrevorD Jul 1 '16 at 15:34
  • @TrevorD I give the OP permission to use the list in mid-sentence if desired. – Stan Jul 1 '16 at 16:15
  • I meant that your expressions are shown could not sensibly be used in mid-sentence. – TrevorD Jul 1 '16 at 18:44
  • @TrevorD If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong. : ) – Stan Jul 1 '16 at 19:06
  • Honestly though, this is kind of ugly, don't you think? I would have to have a much larger number of terms for this to make sense to me. – cassava Jul 4 '16 at 10:11

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