I came across this tweet, and found the construction a bit funny.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is up on a motion to amend his omnibus anti-animal cruelty bill.

On first read, I parsed it as an omnibus, anti-animal, cruelty bill, which is obviously not the intent.

What's the proper way to write this to avoid ambiguity?

  • 2
    Maybe "Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is up on a motion to amend his omnibus bill opposing animal cruelty."
    – James
    Sep 27, 2016 at 14:21
  • 2
    Relevant xkcd: xkcd.com/37 Sep 27, 2016 at 14:28
  • 3
    There's always a relevant xkcd. Sep 27, 2016 at 14:32
  • 1
    If you like subtlety, you can employ the technique recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style and use en dashes instead of hyphens to connect compound words whose individual components are themselves compound; i.e., anti–animal cruelty bill or anti–animal-cruelty bill. That is in theory unambiguous, but unfortunately, the vast majority of readers are highly unlikely to notice this difference (much less know about it in the first place), so it probably wouldn’t get you very far in the real world. Sep 27, 2016 at 15:33
  • @James I think your suggestion, to rewrite it to separate the words which might otherwise be mistakenly linked, is the only sensible approach. Rearranging punctuation might help the reader but it won't help the listener. Sep 27, 2016 at 15:40

1 Answer 1


I agree with your reading of the phrase. It is a bit funny, in the sense of humorous. A great example of a sentence that says the opposite of what is intended.

The following seem unambiguous:

anti-animal-cruelty bill

animal anti-cruelty bill

Or one could reword as suggested by @KevinWorkman.

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