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And is one of the most confusing words in English for me. Sometimes it's really ambiguous, even though I am an advanced learner.
Take this as an example:

There are four American and British people

Does this mean there are four Americans and four British people or are altogether four people?

Can anyone help?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Janus Bahs Jacquet, user140086, tchrist Nov 6 '16 at 12:33

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  • 1
    Normally, "four american and british people" would mean there are four people in total and they're a mix of american and british. Same for your second example. If you wanted to say there were four of each you would normally say "four american and four british people". I don't think there's anything particularly complicated or ambiguous about "and", but it is true that many sentences are ambiguous. – Max Williams Aug 11 '16 at 7:56
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    I don't think this is primarily an English language/usage issue, as I suspect the same lack of clarity is possible in many other languages. It's simply poor expression, because it leaves the reader/listener uncertain of what is meant - although @MaxWilliams is right that faced with the uncertainty, most would interpret it as (number within) (group defined by noun phrase). – Chappo Aug 11 '16 at 9:27
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    @Chappo Agreeing with your comment entirely, we should assure the OP that we native speakers are no less confused that they are by such disregard for clarity in the spoken word. – WS2 Oct 7 '16 at 8:17

It's important to realise that with English grammar, as for grammar in many (maybe most?) languages, there is not a single defined interpretation for every possible construct.

Depending on context, I would suggest that there were two valid interpretations and one invalid interpretation:

  1. Possible: four people, some American and some British. Context: talking about "westerners" on a bus in rural Asia.
  2. Possible: four people, all of whom have dual citizenship of Britain and America. Context: discussion of dual citizens at immigration control.
  3. Not possible: four British people, four American people, making eight in total.

In this case I would say that this comes down to the fact that there is a number involved and to its placement, however the key point is that with only a slight variation in the sentence, the "and" could be interpreted differently.

This is why, as one of the commenters pointed out, this sentence is an example of poor construction, in which (without context) there is no single right answer.

Off-topic aside: as part of a software design job, I once did user research on whether people interpreted "a and b or c" as "(a and b) or c" or "a and (b or c)", and other such permutations. The results showed that:

  • In almost no examples did everyone agree

  • Where there was general agreement, it largely came down to assumptions around context, rather than the grammar itself

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