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I want to write a sentence that starts similar to

Given a man walking a dog and a cat, ...

This could be interpreted as

  1. "given a man that is walking both a dog and a cat".
  2. "given (a man walking a dog) and (a cat)".

(2) is the intended meaning. I want the reader to mentally parse the sentence as (2) the first time. The actual sentence I have will appear in a technical document, and the reader may become confused if they think I could possibly mean (1).


Obviously, if you rewrite the sentence as:

Given a cat and man walking a dog, ...

this could be interpreted as "Given a cat and a man together walking a dog," which would be incorrect.


One fix would be to include "both."

Given both a man walking a dog and a cat, ...

The function of "both" here is to prepare the reader to expect two things, however, including it is awkward. "Both A and B" is usually meant to emphasize "specifically A and B, not just A or B." The issue is that A=(man walking a dog) and B=(cat) are not, concretely, conditions to be satisfied. Consider

Given both an integer x and an integer y, x+y is an integer.

versus

Given an integer x and an integer y, x+y is an integer.

In the first alternative, "both" serves the function of telling the reader "if there is no y (or x), I am not guaranteeing that x+y is an integer." The primary function of "both" in the clause unnecessary and awkward. The second alternative above is preferred.


I suspect that I could include some punctuation to make it work. I was thinking em dashes, but this just doesn't look right.

Given a man — walking a dog — and a cat, ...

Question: Is this use of em dashes grammatically correct? If I keep the same words and the order of those words, is there punctuation I can add to reduce confusion?

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3 Answers 3

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Given a man walking a dog, together with a cat.

This reads unnaturally for vernacular sentences, but reads fine for technical writing:

Given a set X, together with two binary operations satisfying the following axioms, we have a vector space.

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  • 'Reads unnatural' reads unnaturally. Google 2-grams. Jan 19, 2022 at 11:36
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    your advice rings true
    – Mark Allen
    Jan 19, 2022 at 13:53
  • vernacular sentences as opposed to what?
    – Lambie
    Jan 19, 2022 at 16:33
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This could work:

Given 1) a man walking a dog and 2) a cat, . . .

Or:

Given a dog-walking man and a cat, . . .

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"Sample: Given a man walking a dog and a cat, ...

This could be interpreted as

"given a man that is walking both a dog and a cat". "given (a man walking a dog) and (a cat)".**"

No, those interpretations are incorrect given the sentence. "walking a dog and a cat" are structurally parallel.

  • Given a man walking a dog and a cat, one can only conclude [whatever].
  • Given a child screaming bloody murder and crying, one can only conclude [whatever].
  • Given a line crossing a circle and a triangle, one can only conclude [whatever]
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  • OP says: Given a man walking a dog and a cat. Not: Given a man walking a dog and cat. You removed an article. And how would you interpret Given a man walking a dog and a car? Jan 19, 2022 at 20:03
  • @TinfoilHat Just a typo. I fixed it.
    – Lambie
    Jan 19, 2022 at 21:45
  • downvoter: tsk, tsk, tsk
    – Lambie
    Jan 21, 2022 at 15:51
  • @TinfoilHat As making no sense at all.
    – Lambie
    Jan 27, 2022 at 16:05

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