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Everyone was mostly Muslim or atheist, like my family.

What is the rule here, is the family Muslim or atheist? I know it's poorly written, I didn't write it and I can't ask the author. My gut response is atheist. Is there a rule for this?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 16:50

1 Answer 1

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I do agree with the comments that this sentence is a little unclear, but I think this is where a comma makes all the difference.

The comma appears after "Muslim or atheist", which to me describes "everyone" as being either Muslim or atheist. The comma separating "atheist" and "like my family" indicates that people being either Muslim or atheist is a description that also applies to my family. Everyone is Muslim or atheist. My family is also either Muslim or atheist. This is a very subtle distinction.

Had the sentence been phrased:

Everyone was mostly Muslim, or atheist like my family.
                          ^

with the comma appearing after "Muslim", then I would interpret that sentence to mean everyone (except my family) is Muslim or atheist. My family is mostly atheist.

The meaning of the sentence can change based on the position of the comma that separates terms in a series (see also Oxford comma or Harvard comma).

Since the difference in phrasing is subtle, but the difference in meaning is potentially big, this sentence probably should be rewritten to clarify the meaning. It is difficult to make a judgement with this single sentence. Consider looking at the sentences before and after this one for a point of reference. If the sentences before and after this one talk about the person's family being Muslim or atheist, then you could make that assumption about this sentence. Similarly, if nearby sentences talk about the author's family being atheist, then you could make the assumption that this sentence implies the author's family is predominantly atheist.

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    Let's also add that mostly Muslim is not the same as Most everyone was Muslim. The original is filled with ambiguity. Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 15:18
  • @YosefBaskin: I can see how people could interpret that differently. I thought the word "mostly" referred to the number of people who were either Muslim or atheist, rather than being a judgement about much those people adhere to the Muslim faith. Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 16:22
  • And my point of reference is American English, as opposed to British English. Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 16:23

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