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Does "a pretty egg box" always mean "a pretty box of eggs" rather than "a box of pretty eggs"?

More precisely, is "adjective adjunct-noun head-noun" always interpreted as "adjective (adjunct-noun head-noun)" rather than "(adjective adjunct-noun) head-noun"?

If so, can "a pretty egg box" be punctuated so as to mean "a box of pretty eggs"?

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    It can mean either one. And no reasonable punctuation will disambiguate. – Hot Licks May 6 '18 at 12:00
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    'A pretty egg-box' disambiguates one way, but you need 'a box of/for pretty eggs' (if you feel it makes sense) for the other. – Edwin Ashworth May 6 '18 at 12:33
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    @EdwinAshworth Is "pretty-egg box" ungrammatical? What about "steel-screwdriver box"? – fundagain May 6 '18 at 13:04
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    Grammar and punctuation are separate issues as dealt with on ELU, fundagain. I'd say you can just about get away with steel-screwdriver box (as there must be millions) (but, even if one feels the need to specify that these screwdrivers are made largely of steel [rather than rubber?], I'd go with 'box containing / for steel screwdrivers'). // While pretty-egg box is identical in form, I'd say it's too outlandish to be used in serious writing. – Edwin Ashworth May 6 '18 at 16:06
  • Does the down voting mean this is a poor question, a poorly phrased question, or one I should already have known the answer to? – fundagain May 6 '18 at 18:34
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Depending on the surrounding text, the meaning should become clear. (My personal impression, hearing it completely on its own, is that pretty is the adjective and egg box is the noun—but it certainly doesn't need to be interpreted that way.) I expect that if the term pretty egg box were found within several sentences, it would become obvious if it was referring to an egg box that was pretty or a box for pretty eggs.

Punctuation, as you suggest, is not necessarily wrong when it comes to grammar. However, the reception of such punctuation may be just as bad (or worse) to a reader as the ambiguity of not using it.

Although this kind of thing is open to subjective opinion, I can't quickly parse a pretty-egg box. I can understand its unambiguous meaning (because it follows rules of punctuation I'm used to), but I have to pause and consider it for a few seconds.

Perhaps a more quickly understood form of punctuation would be a "pretty egg" box. There is no hyphen being used in an odd (although correct) way, and the quotation marks serve to more easily distinguish the parts of the phrase. While this, too, is unusual, it seems more readable to me.

But I think the best option would be to let the context determine the meaning—or to simply rephrase it.


In theory, any such phrase could be considered syntactically ambiguous. However, usage and context will seldom result in any confusion.

Unlike egg box, which is not a defined compound noun, consider letter box, which is. (Although I could argue that even though egg box is not found in a dictionary, it's still treated the same way, informally.)

As such, even syntactically, the phrase red letter box is unambiguous. What's a box for letters? A letter box. It's a defined phrase. So, a red letter box is a letter box that's red. (Not to be confused with read letters!)

If you actually mean to describe a box for red letters (I suppose letters written in red ink or on red paper), it could, technically, be a red letter letter box. But that's simply awkward.

If context can't provide an unambiguous meaning (or if arguably correct phrasing or punctuation is awkward), then just rephrase.

  • Thanks. Can you please add something to your answer indicating that "pretty egg box" is always inherently ambiguous, as indicated by Hot Licks. Then I can accept and close. – fundagain May 6 '18 at 17:31
  • @fundagain But it's not always inherently ambiguous. Most often, context will be used to indicate the intended meaning—as I said. How something is used can sometimes impart meaning beyond its syntactic structure. – Jason Bassford May 6 '18 at 17:44
  • I mean the structure [adjective] [adjunct] [head] is always grammatically/syntactically ambiguous, and is disambiguated by context (semantics). – fundagain May 6 '18 at 18:39
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    @fundagain I updated my answer . . . – Jason Bassford May 6 '18 at 19:39

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