I wanted to clarify how an adverb (usually preceding) affects the clauses connected by a conjunction.

Consider the dictionary meaning of the word oblique. The New Oxford Dictionary of American English defines it thus: not explicit or done in a direct way.

In such sentences, does the adverb not apply to both the clauses? Am I supposed to interpret the above as

(not explicit) or (not done in a direct way)


(not explicit) or (done in a direct way)


I believe it is the former (primarily from context), but wanted to clarify.

I apologize if my question is unclear, but I have seen confusing constructions when adverbs are used with conjugate clauses. I tried a search on english.stackexchange, but couldn't find anything relevant other than this one (maybe because I don't know how to do use technical terms correctly in this case).

  • You haven't provided any examples of the use of an adverb that could be ambiguous. May 17, 2020 at 2:47
  • Context is always key. But did you think that oblique could mean not explicit but somehow direct? If the word not did not apply to both explanations, that is what would be left. The initial meaning of oblique is at an angle and by extension means indirect and not aligned in a straight manner. May 17, 2020 at 4:29
  • @JasonBassford I agree. I should have saved the references to such (ambiguous) usage in legitimate documents. I apologize. I will update the question in the earnest (unless, of course, pedagogical purists shoot it down by majority voting). May 17, 2020 at 5:45

1 Answer 1


This is known as coordination of unlike categories (CaGEL p1326). Since it is a definition you've provided as an example it may be thought of as something like:

Oblique means not explicit or done in a direct way.

Explicit is an AdjP and done in a direct way a past-participial, both are complements of means and modified by AdvP not.

Oblique {means [not [ [explicit] [or ( done in a direct way ) ] ] }

Your first reading is correct where not applies to both the AdjP and the past-participial in the coordination. In effect it is a shorter way of saying:

Oblique means not explicit, or it means not done in a direct way.

  • So how about: Oblique means not explicit or done in an indirect way.? The question is more about logic than grammar. May 17, 2020 at 4:09
  • @Tinfoil Hat That needs some delimiting punctuation: a comma at the very least before or; a colon after means , a semicolon before or and a comma after would be on the heavy side of things, but would make it clear that not does not apply to done in an indirect way. At that point, rephrasing would be advisable.
    – DW256
    May 17, 2020 at 4:38
  • I disagree, however, I like the way you put it @TinfoilHat! The question is about grammar because I am not able to find the rule stated as clearly as I need. If a rule were stated that way, the question wouldn't have sounded like a logic question. May 17, 2020 at 5:50
  • Could the downvoter provide a comment? Does s/he need a reference to CaGEL (Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) book? Is this answer incorrect? May 17, 2020 at 5:54
  • @Kdedar Mhaswade Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule here and different interpretations of the same construction are often possible. Punctuation can be of help most of the time in guiding the reader to one interpretation or the other. On a side note, I as well would appreciate some indication of where my answer is defective, if it is so, to go along with the downvote.
    – DW256
    May 17, 2020 at 6:03

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