A sentence with listing items: How to remove the ambiguity?

15

1

There is a store which trades oranges and 3 kinds of apples. And there is a person there to whom I'm giving directions. Which sentence will be the best in such a case?

  • Put green apples in the first box. Put red and yellow apples and oranges in the second box.
  • Put green apples in the first box. Put red and yellow apples, and oranges, in the second box.
  • Put green apples in the first box. Put red and yellow apples, and also oranges, in the second box.
  • Put green apples in the first box. Put red and yellow apples, as well as oranges, in the second box.

The 1st sentence looks wrong to me. We don't have red or yellow oranges.

The 2nd sentence looks OK to me, but I'm not sure that commas are enough to remove the ambiguity.

The 3rd and 4th sentences look somewhat wordy.

Edit: It is assumed that I cannot place oranges at the first place.

jsv

Posted 2020-08-18T16:15:15.557

Reputation: 327

14Put oranges and red and yellow apples in the second box. Put oranges first and then there's no need to fret. How to remove ambiguity here? Change the order of the fruit. – Lambie – 2020-08-18T16:24:40.870

1You could mention 'oranges' before the red and yellow apples. Or you could say "Put the other apples and the oranges in the second box." – Weather Vane – 2020-08-18T16:24:58.403

1Put the red and yellow apples and the oranges in the second box. I've given two ways to say it without changing the order. – Weather Vane – 2020-08-18T16:30:21.633

3Is the hearer someone from Mars who knows nothing of fruit? – Michael Harvey – 2020-08-18T17:38:31.643

@WeatherVane Put the other apples in the second box changes the idea. And I see nothing wrong with changing the order of stuff linked by AND.. – Lambie – 2020-08-18T19:28:13.150

5Are the apples red and yellow? Or are there some red apples and some yellow apples? – puppetsock – 2020-08-18T21:19:16.973

@puppetsock Some apples are red, some yellow, and some green. – jsv – 2020-08-18T21:36:26.407

1Then you want Jason Bassford's answer. – puppetsock – 2020-08-18T21:40:12.117

1FWIW I don't find 3&4 overly wordy at all. – Greg Martin – 2020-08-19T07:24:56.257

IRL something like, "Put the green apples in the first box. All the other fruit goes in the second box," would be said. If you must specify what the other fruit is, you could say, "All the other fruit--red, yellow apples and oranges--go in the second box." – Jim Fell – 2020-08-19T14:32:22.923

1It is assumed that I cannot place oranges at the first place. Why not? – Barmar – 2020-08-19T17:36:38.300

@Barmar In technical writing it is often a good idea to maintain parallelism, isn't it? :-)

– jsv – 2020-08-20T00:05:17.567

3Clarity takes precedence. – Barmar – 2020-08-20T00:09:53.977

4"Put green apples in the first box and everything else in the second box" :) – anotherdave – 2020-08-20T12:25:10.710

Just throwing this in: green can also mean 'not yet ripe'. – mcalex – 2020-08-21T06:18:04.000

Answers

30

One way to reduce the ambiguity is to include articles: 

Put the green apples in the first box.  Put the red and yellow apples and the oranges in the second box.

With the definite articles in place, we can see that red and yellow applies only to apples and not to oranges.  This "red and yellow" is inside the phrase "the red and yellow apples", so it doesn't apply to the phrase "the oranges".

Using the definite article does imply that the apples and oranges in question are specified by something in the surrounding context.  That works in this context, since we're only talking about apples and oranges that are associated with the store.  In some other context, we might have reason to include unknown apples and oranges, or even hypothetical pieces of fruit.  If so, we might use a determiner like "any" or "all" to mark the same noun-phrase boundaries.

Using some determiner like the definite article could also resolve the ambiguity in the other direction:

... the red and yellow apples and oranges ...

In this example, we know that both colors apply to both kinds of fruit. 

Gary Botnovcan

Posted 2020-08-18T16:15:15.557

Reputation: 12 044

1“we know that both colors apply to both kinds of fruit” — I would interpret this sentence structure with ambiguity in general, and in specific I would never think someone had red and yellow oranges. Overall this was definitely a +1 answer to a great question! – gen-ℤ ready to perish – 2020-08-20T00:08:30.970

1Are there two kinds of apples (apples which are green, and apples which are some kind of mix of red & yellow), or three (green ones, red ones and yellow ones)? – Phil – 2020-08-20T01:38:11.637

There might even be four, @Phil: apples that are green, apples that are only red, apples that are only yellow, and apples that are both red and yellow. That's a different ambiguity than the one in question, and it's not one that can be resolved by simply marking the beginnings of the noun phrases. Where the adjectives attach and how the adjectives attach are two separate questions. – Gary Botnovcan – 2020-08-20T14:42:13.820

27

Simply repeat the use of apples. Rather than using the shortcut of red and yellow apples, use the expanded form of red apples and yellow apples:

Put green apples in the first box. Put red apples, yellow apples, and oranges in the second box.


Alternatively, given that only 4 type of things are under consideration, there is an even simpler method of approaching a concise and clearly understood set of instructions:

Put green apples in the first box. Put everything else in the second box.

Once mention is made of green apples, there is no need to enumerate the remaining items at all.

Jason Bassford

Posted 2020-08-18T16:15:15.557

Reputation: 34 584

1Is it clear that there are no bananas which should not be put in any box? – Phil – 2020-08-20T01:39:02.020

@Phil From the question itself: "There is a store which trades oranges and 3 kinds of apples." The store doesn't trade bananas or anything else that isn't in the instructions. – Jason Bassford – 2020-08-20T02:06:59.130

3@JasonBassford just because a store trades apples and oranges doesn't mean it only trades those thing. – Kat – 2020-08-20T09:21:53.660

5

You have two good answers. I look at this question as probably one where clarity is at premium even at the cost of inelegant language. For instance, you are giving precise packing instructions and don't want any ambiguity. If this be the case, I would make boxes central to the communication, phrasing it as:

The first box is only for green apples. In the second box, put apples ( both red and yellow) and oranges

beeshyams

Posted 2020-08-18T16:15:15.557

Reputation: 151

5

Another approach would be to put oranges first:

Put green apples in the first box. Put oranges and red and yellow apples in the second box.

Or if there are only green, red, and yellow apples, then:

Put green apples in the first box. Put oranges and the rest of the apples in the second box.

(or "the other apples")

T.J. Crowder

Posted 2020-08-18T16:15:15.557

Reputation: 719

3

Put green apples in the first box. Put red apples, yellow apples, and oranges in the second box.

Note that there is no comma after "oranges".

David K

Posted 2020-08-18T16:15:15.557

Reputation: 3 069