Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Grammar may seem to have some odd or arbitrary rules, but many of those rules truly help us to communicate clearly. Still, there are times when we have to work to convey our intentions. This is definitely true in our writing when we must manage without clues such as facial expression, intonation, and body language.
We must rely on punctuation, grammar, and even word order to get our message across.
A reader recently had a question about adjectives modifying multiple (coordinate) nouns. An example of coordinate nouns in a sentence would be—
“Remember to wear your red hat and mittens.”
In a sentence such as this, we recognize that red modifies both hat and mittens. For emphasis, you could repeat the adjective, but you don’t have to.
“Remember to wear your red hat and red mittens.”
If the mittens aren’t red, you’d need to use a different wording.
“Remember to wear your red hat and the soft mittens.”
“Remember to wear your red hat and pink mittens.”
“Remember to wear your mittens and the red hat.”
So to show that the mittens aren’t red, either give the mittens an adjective (or more than one) of their own or switch the order so that the color red clearly modifies only the hat.
If the adjective is used only for the second noun, it clearly doesn’t modify the first noun.
You can also use a single adjective when you’re modifying a string of nouns and/or pronouns.
To save a few pennies, Lewis picked up expired milk, cheese, and bread.
In this example, the milk, cheese, and bread are all old, past their expiration dates.
The pageantry and shows were fun, but we went to the Renaissance festival for the yummy pies, wines, and funnel cakes.
In this example, the foods are all yummy.
I found it true that some dogs, children, cars, and in-laws get on my nerves.
The speaker is pointing out that some of the members of each of these categories annoy her.
If you don’t want to imply that two nouns are modified by the same adjective, you can either change the word order, pairing the noun with the adjective last in the list, or you can give the second noun a different modifier, even if it’s just a determiner. A different modifier for the second noun or pronoun breaks the pattern—readers understand that the first adjective belongs only to the first noun and that the nouns that follow will have their own modifiers.
Note: Determiners include articles (a, an, the), numbers, possessive pronouns (my, your, her, etc.), and indefinite pronouns (all, some, every).
When there are only two nouns, it’s easy to give them both a modifier, and there’s seldom any confusion. They can share a modifier or each noun can have its own.
The flat footballs and soccer balls had been stored in the basement for a long time. (Both footballs and soccer balls are flat.)
The flat footballs and the stained soccer balls had been stored in the basement for a long time. (Only the footballs are flat—the soccer balls are stained but not flat, at least not that we know of.)
The flat footballs and the soccer balls had been stored in the basement for a long time. (We have no clues about the condition of the soccer balls. From this wording—with just the addition of the article the—we can’t assume that they’re flat.)
It’s when we use a series of nouns that don’t share a modifier that we can confuse readers. And this is where our own reader, with his question, comes in.
His question (modified)—
My colleague and I disagree over how the following statement reads:
“You must wear a black belt, socks, and black slip-resistant shoes.”
He insists that the sentence is stating that all items in the list are required to be black because the first use of the adjective implies the modification of each noun in the list. (i.e. You must wear a black belt, black socks, and black slip-resistant shoes.)
However, I believe that the second use of the same adjective to modify the third noun renders the second noun unmodified by the first use of the adjective.
My question is this: Is there a rule regarding how multiple adjectives are used to describe multiple nouns in a list? When does the use of one adjective modify multiple nouns compared to using the same adjective to modify multiple nouns in the same sentence?
In short, is the statement saying that black socks are required? Or just socks?
I would like to point to a grammar rule or style preference, but I cannot seem to find one.
And my response (also modified and expanded)—
The problem here is that there’s more than the issue of matching adjectives to nouns to deal with. The actual problem is the faulty parallelism.
The Adjective/noun Issue First
Both the reader and his colleague obviously understand how putting a single adjective in front of a list of nouns typically affects the nouns—it modifies each. Yet the reader who asked the question also understood that using a different adjective for one of the nouns broke that pattern. But this sentence seemingly tries to set up the pattern and break it at the same time. And that creates a problem for parallelism and for the reader.
Because of the sentence’s structure, the two can’t decide what the sentence actually says; readers would have the same problem. This is one of those times when you can’t win without rewriting. There’s no rule for this particular situation. Not exactly.
The questioner is right that the modifiers for the third noun imply that black doesn’t go with every noun. But we can’t expect readers to back-read. Many understand the rule that an adjective before a list belongs to all nouns in a list. As soon as they saw that first comma and the second noun (unmodified), they’d be primed for every item in the list to be black. Yet the modifier for the third noun will have them doing a double take. Still, they know what the beginning of the sentence said—black belt and black socks; they’ve already established that in their minds. But now the end of the sentence implies something different. The sentence doesn’t make sense because it uses competing rules.
The fact that the sentence repeats black is a problem. But it would be a problem no matter what that modifier was. Imagine the color of the shoes as red—how would that read?
“You must wear a black belt, socks, and red slip-resistant shoes.”
There is still no way for readers to know the color of the socks. There is no way for them to know if it’s socks alone that are required or if the requirement is for black socks. Not with this sentence. (Yet after some consideration, it’s my opinion that the example with the red shoes “proves” that the color of the socks is not important to the person who passed along these requirements.) Still, this sentence doesn’t clearly mean what either the reader or his colleague read into it. The meaning can’t be determined with the sentence written as it is.
Better options if the socks should be black—
“You must wear a black belt and socks, and black slip-resistant shoes.”
“You must wear a black belt, black socks, and black slip-resistant shoes.”
Regarding the Parallelism Issue
To achieve parallelism, the structure for the nouns in the list should match. So if two are modified, all should be modified. Therefore any of these would work:
If everything is black—
black belt, socks, and shoes
black belt, black dress socks, and black slip-resistant shoes
black belt and socks, and black slip-resistant shoes (though readers might still be confused with this construction)
If the socks aren’t black—
dress socks, black belt, and black slip-resistant shoes
black belt, socks of any style or color, and black slip-resistant shoes
There are other options; I included only a few. What’s important is to be clear, to give readers no opportunity to misread. And you definitely don’t want to make them backtrack once they’ve reached the end of a sentence.
If you intend to modify all nouns in a list with a single modifier, make it clear that such is your intention. If two or more nouns are modified by the same adjective but a third (or fourth) is not, you’ll want to make that clear. And if no nouns share an adjective, use word order to show that option.
Remember that you can always use repetition to make your meaning clear.
“You must wear black socks, a black belt, and black slip-resistant shoes.”
Or you can even change the sentence structure.
“Your belt, socks, and slip-resistant shoes must be black.”
This reader asked about a source for rules on this subject. The Chicago Manual of Style mentions coordinate nouns but only briefly. It points out that repeating an article before each noun isn’t necessary but isn’t prohibited. So—
He nodded to the president, the senator, and the mayor before stepping to the podium.
He nodded to the president, senator, and mayor before stepping to the podium.
I found nothing in Garner’s or Hart’s Rules relating to the topic.
This was a great question. If any of you grammar gurus can weigh in, especially with a source readers can check out, please share your knowledge.