I saw this on a billboard recently

We have new and pre-owned cars and trucks

Clearly the intention is to modify "cars and trucks" with the two adjectives "used and preowned" and although the construction does make sense intuitively (and colloquially), I was wondering if there are any specific rules about this kind of "dual-and" construction or any other situation where you have multiple adjectives modifying a string of objects simultaneously.

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    What I'm wondering is, what do they believe is the difference between used and pre-owned?
    – Marthaª
    Jan 6, 2011 at 22:27
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    @Martha: well, I guess theoretically, one can own a car without ever using it. In fact, I don't have a driver's license, so if I win a car in a TV show or something, I'll probably put it on eBay or give it away as pre-owned but not used.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 6, 2011 at 22:47
  • @Martha: I agree, it looks like needless wordiness, which is not uncommon in advertising, alas. The theoretical difference is unlikely to have any practical use. Jan 6, 2011 at 23:21
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    @Martha: A "Certified Pre-Owned" car (CPO) indicates that the car was inspected by the dealer and passed some long checklist. CPOs usually come with a warranty. A "used" car, on the other hand, is one that has not been inspected and likely carries no warranty other than requirements imposed by the state (such as the ability to return the car within two weeks or purchase, or whatnot). Anywho, I imagine the word "pre-owned" implies Certified Pre-Owned, but perhaps there wasn't enough space. Jan 6, 2011 at 23:23
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    @Scott: I would not say that "pre-owned" implies "certified". I think "pre-owned" is used as a euphemism for "used". Jan 7, 2011 at 14:42

1 Answer 1



The problem with this kind of double reference is that it might sometimes give rise to ambiguity. That is why the words "respective" and "respectively" are used when it is necessary to let readers know that the first verb refers only to the first noun, and the second only to the second.

While this example is not really ambiguous, several interpretations are theoretically possible:

We have used cars, and we have pre-owned trucks.

In this case, you would use "respectively".

We have used and pre-owned cars, and we have used and pre-owned trucks.

In this case you would not use "respectively". However, since some writers do not use that word where it is needed, the reader is not always sure how to interpret such a sentence if there is no "respectively". It could also be confused with the following interpretation:

We have used and pre-owned cars, and we have trucks.

My advice is to use this type of sentence only when there is no chance of confusion at all, when there is no chance that the reader would want to read back or speculate as to how it could be intended. Even if some thinking will clear up ambiguity, and even though it is then not explicitly "wrong", why make the reader exert himself if you could also write it such that it is clear immediately?

  • @RegDwight: Agreed, this particular example is not really ambiguous. But I understood Crasic to be asking about this construction in general, which can be ambiguous. I will add to my answer that it is not ambiguous in this case. Jan 6, 2011 at 23:10
  • I don't really see any basis for assuming the first meaning, absent something in the sentence structure which make it difficult to put each modifier with the thing modified. "Bob and Joe played USCF-supervised 30-minute games against Larry and Jeff", for example, might be more concise than "Bob played a USCF-certified 30-minute game against Larry, and Joe likewise against Jeff". In your example, though, "used cars and pre-owned trucks" would actually be a word shorter than "used and pre-owned cars and trucks". For the latter meaning, "as well as" serves as an "and" which detaches modifiers.
    – supercat
    Feb 9, 2014 at 19:10

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