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For instance, if you have

  • (A and B) or C - ex. Fish and Chips or Burger

The implication being that fish and chips are grouped, then you could also choose a burger vs.

  • A and (B or C) - ex. Salad and Rye Toast or Sourdough Toast

Where the implication is that you get Salad and then your choice of toast.

Both are written the same way, but other than context this could be interpreted either way. So is there a way to grammatically differentiate the two that would never allow for this ambiguity?

  • It's not so much a case of grammar as it is style. You're right, these things can be ambiguous, and the recommendations I've seen about this topic usually are about the serial or Oxford comma, where it recommends the use of a comma to be more clear. "I'm going with my parents, Mary and David." An extra comma could eliminate some ambiguity. In some cases adding an extra comma can CREATE ambiguity. Also, style guides aren't in agreement about comma placement. It's just an inherent feature you have to work around depending on the case. – Zebrafish Jun 30 '19 at 4:44
  • In the cases of programming languages, for example, AND and OR are defined as having a precedence with respect to the other, and you might have to use () parentheses to override the precedence. Natural languages, from my understanding, aren't as precise as this. – Zebrafish Jun 30 '19 at 4:46
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I don't think you can disambiguate them grammatically other than by rewording them to avoid the ambiguity in the first place.

In practice, they're often disambiguated by context and common sense. "fish and chips" is known to be a single dish, and it wouldn't make much sense for a burger, which can be a meal in itself, to be an alternative to chips, which is just a side. But in the second example, it makes much more sense to have a choice between different types of toast to go along with the salad, than for one type of toast to be an alternative to salad+toast.

However, I've occasionally seen menus that I found confusing. It might say:

Entrees served with a choice of soup or salad and one side dish.

I assume this means "(soup or salad) and one side order", but it's not as obvious as your examples. And all they have to do is reorder it to:

Entrees served with one side dish and choice of soup or salad.

to avoid the problem. I think they write it the first way because they think of the choices in the order that they'll be served, rather than worrying about semantics.

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Good question. Unfortunately, your examples show that syntax / grammar alone doesn’t solve the problem.

One useful heuristic, though, is to consider conceptual cohesion.

For example, “fish and chips” is common enough that it comes across as a single unit in “fish and chips or a burger”, leaving the burger to be the other choice. With your toast example, there isn’t enough cohesion between the elements to group the terms either way, so one has to rely on what ‘makes sense’ in the context to determine the intent.

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You can stylistically emphasize the pairs in order to indicate grouping; you may also have to use some different phrasing.

For instance:

Do you want fish and chips or a burger?
Do you want salad and rye toast or salad and sourdough toast?

Where text emphasis isn't possible, additional rephrasing may be required:

Do you want fish and chips or do you want a burger?
Do you want (1) fish and chips or (2) a burger?

Do you want salad and rye toast or do you want salad and sourdough toast?
Do you want (1) salad and rye toast or (2) salad and sourdough toast?

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