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I have a couple of related questions, one of which is a concrete question and the other of which is more general/abstract. My first question is in regards to the following sentence, which was taken from a government poster (USPS Poster 7):

Photographs for news purposes may be taken in entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors, or auditoriums when used for public meetings except where prohibited by official signs or Security Force personnel or other authorized personnel or a federal court order or rule.

Namely, is the phrase "when used for public meetings" modifying just "auditoriums" or the entire list? It would seem that public meetings would be most applicable to auditoriums (though certainly not inapplicable to the others), but, knowing bureaucracies, I'm guessing that "except where prohibited..." is intended to modify each element of the list.

Further, in general, is there a way to deduce from grammatical construction (perhaps, additional commas), and not simply context/intuition, whether a modifier at the end of a list modifies the entire list or simply the last element?

Thanks for your insight.

  • It's ambiguous. Normally, it would likely be interpreted as modifying all of the items. (All of those things can have security concerns, so it makes no sense to think that one is any different than the others.) But to be explicitly clear, it would need to be rephrased. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Mar 14 at 20:04
  • Jason Bassford, that's what I was thinking, but I wasn't sure. Thanks. – Gary Moon Mar 14 at 21:03
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1: Due to the lack of a comma after "auditoriums", it would seem, in basic grammar and sentence flow, that "when used" refers to "auditoriums"; but, by the same logic, the exceptions could only be applied in the auditoriums. If so, perhaps they can only limit photographs in certain areas in the first place.

2: Yes. Don't put the item with the modifier at the end of the list. Another, more complicated, answer is to use semicolons in your list, making the item separations stronger and more specific, and a comma after "meetings", or, if the exceptions apply to the common areas, a period after "meetings", followed by "Restrictions will apply when...".

  • That was my suspicion regarding the Poster 7 sentence, but, being a simple mathematician, I wasn't sure. Thanks for the insight on the related question. – Gary Moon Mar 15 at 1:08
  • You were right. And reading and structuring sentences is about logic, first and foremost, so there is a lot in common with math. Have you ever been taught to diagram sentences? I have always thought that it would be the best way to bring "math, not language" people at least more comfortably into the written world, and, hopefully, into the fold. – PvtBuddie Mar 15 at 3:51
  • No, I don't believe I was ever taught to diagram sentences, but I'll have to check it out as it does sound interesting (and I do love learning about all kinds of various things in my spare time). Thanks for the suggestion, PvtBuddie. – Gary Moon Mar 15 at 10:19

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