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One Adjective Paired with Multiple Nouns—A Reader’s Question

August 8, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 8, 2015

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.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

27 Responses to “One Adjective Paired with Multiple Nouns—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Timothy Gwyn says:

    In the example of the socks, I think you may have omitted a point. If the writer simply said you are required to wear, “a black belt, socks and slip-resistant shoes,” the change to slip-resistant would negate the requirement for black. So the writer reasserted black to make his point, not realizing it brought the color of the socks into question. When things like this are specified, I think we can assume that yellow socks are frowned upon. As for a wording that is simple and clear, I like your clever use of a comma as one resolution.

    • You’re right, Timothy. I didn’t include that point as an example. I’d thought to cover the point with the general “the modifiers” in this passage: “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.”

      It’s true that any modifier with the third noun would have negated the requirement for black. Yet by that point, readers would have already assumed the socks, like the belt, should be black. And then they would have to reevaluate. Definitely a time to rewrite.

      Thanks for highlighting that important detail.

  2. Pat Garcia says:

    I am not a grammar guru, but your explanations finally help me understand what is meant by faulty parallelism.

    I have the Chicago Manual of Style, and I use the AP Style Guide (the online edition), yet both guides are sometimes confusing.


  3. Alla says:

    Hi Beth,

    What do you think about the following sentence?
    He likes the printing and designing processes.
    Is this correct, or should it be process?

    • Alla, are there multiple printing and designing processes or just the one?

      This sentence looks to be straightforward; you just need to decide how many processes there are. Compare to something such as this—

      He likes the fuzzy and soft kitten—one kitten, both fuzzy and soft.

      He likes the fuzzy and soft kittens—multiple kittens both fuzzy and soft.

      He likes [both] the fuzzy and the soft kittens—multiple kittens, some fuzzy and some soft (but nothing is mentioned about kittens being both fuzzy and soft).

      If you want to imply that the two are separate processes, include the before designing. But processes can be plural either way; it just depends on what you need to say.

      Also, consider changing to print and design if that would work for the meaning.

      All three of these are valid:

      He likes the print and design process.

      He likes the print and design processes.

      He likes [both] the print and the design processes.

      Does that help?

      • kowalsky says:

        Dear Beth,

        According to you answer, I implied that if I saw a scene with one black and one white dog then I can say “I saw a black and a white dogs”. The latter sentence sounds ungrammatical / weird for me.
        What about “I saw a black and a white dog”, is this ungrammatical?

        I have further questions with “Adj1 and Adj2 Ns” construction.
        Is it really so straightforward that this construction implies that the discussed Ns are Adj1 and Adj2 at the same time?
        Here I assume that Ns are countable, otherwise it is ambiguous I guess: e.g. distribution of the noun over adjectives is allowed here “I ate white and black chocolate”—white chocolate and black chocolate.

  4. Alla says:

    Thanks, Beth. Great explanation. I’ll save this for future reference.

  5. Pete says:

    Dear Beth, can you help with the following sentences:

    a) I drink three cups of coffee or tea everyday
    b) I drink three cups of coffee and tea everyday

    In sentence a, it is clear that the total cups is 3.
    In sentence b, it is ambiguous?

    Does the “three” modifier both “coffee and tea” and hence, it means 3 coffee + 3 tea = 6 cups everyday? or can the “three” means 1 Coffee + 2 Tea or 2 Coffee + 1 Tea making a total of 3?

    • Phil Huston says:

      It seems like a simple numeric qualifier would kill the ambiguity in example two. Nothing wordy, just how many cups of tea after “and.” The ambiguity reads more like three cups of coffee and an unknown number of cups of tea. Three cups of coffee and some or a lot of or not much or X number of cups. Just a thought.

    • The first sentence says that the speaker drinks three cups of coffee or three cups of tea for a daily total of three cups. Yet context could also have us reading into this that the speaker drinks some combination of cups of coffee and tea that total three. That is, the wording sounds loose enough that most readers would assume that it could also mean 2 coffee and 1 tea or 2 tea and 1 coffee. To make sure to mean only three cups of coffee or three cups of tea, with no chance of confusion, you’d want to repeat the number—I drink three cups of coffee or three cups of tea every day [note two words].

      It’s not that the grammar says that the combinations are possibilities. But readers could definitely conclude the speaker might be talking a combination simply because they might assume that meaning.

      The second sentence implies a total of six cups—3 each of coffee and tea—or three cups of a coffee and tea blend. But because of what this means, readers might be confused. They might wonder if the speaker truly does drink three cups of each daily. The reader might imagine that he’s simply reading the sentence wrong. If you do want to convey that the speaker drinks three of each daily, try—

      I drink three cups each of coffee and tea every day.

      I drink three cups of coffee and three of tea every day.

      I drink three cups of coffee—and three of tea—every day.


      Context and reader expectation and familiarity with the nouns and actions in our sentences may have us adjusting our wording so there’s no chance of confusion. Clarity needs to be one of our guides when following the rules doesn’t necessarily do enough. (Did you assume that reader also applied to familiarity, to be read reader familiarity? That was my intention.)

      I had this sentence in the article—

      The flat footballs and soccer balls had been stored in the basement for a long time.

      We understand that both footballs and soccer balls are flat. But what of this next sentence?

      The five flat footballs and soccer balls had been stored in the basement for a long time.

      It’s likely that while readers will assume that all the balls are flat, they’ll probably also assume that there are only five balls, not five footballs and five soccer balls. (Although some will conclude that there are ten balls.) That is, while each ball is flat, for many readers the number of balls will be a combination of footballs and soccer balls. They will read footballs and soccer balls as a unit being modified by flat and five.

      Numbers may have some unusual properties when used as determiners before a series of nouns. And therefore meaning may ultimately rely on context.

      When there are more than two nouns, the number seems to naturally apply to each. Yet context and wording probably also play a part in a reader’s understanding.

      I’ve disciplined myself to read three magazine articles, short stories, and poems every day.

      I could repeat the number three here, and readers would have no doubts about what I mean. Yet many will assume that the speaker reads three of each.

      I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’m thinking that numbers may sometimes seem to fit the multiple nouns separately and sometimes as a unit.


      I don’t know if that’s helpful or confusing, but perhaps a grammar guru can step in and share some wisdom. In the meantime, if there’s any doubt of what a sentence says, rewrite for clarity. If you’re unsure, at least some readers will be as well.

  6. James says:

    “Applicable underlying limit means the total of all available limits of insurance for the underlying insurance plus any alternative insurance.”
    Does “available limits” modify both underlying insurance and alternative insurance or only underlying insurance. Does the use of the determiner “any” before “alternative insurance” mean that “available limits” applies only to “underlying insurance”?

  7. Sam says:

    When it comes to verbs, does it matter if the verb is transitive or intransitive. I’ve heard that it matters if the verb is a linking or action verb (e.g., you shouldn’t write this: I ate popcorn and am beautiful), but would a sentence like this be wrong: Last night, I ate popcorn and listened to a song?

    • Sam, your sentence is fine as is—Last night I ate popcorn and listened to a song.

      I think the main problem with pairing verbs comes when the first verb can be either transitive or intransitive and the second verb is transitive. When the first verb could be either transitive or intransitive but is intransitive, readers might treat it as a transitive and try to attach it to the direct object that follows the second verb. So—

      I sang and ate the bonbons.

      Readers might (at least momentarily) wonder how the speaker sang the bonbons.

      There are many fixes—

      I sang my sad songs and ate the bonbons.

      I sang and I ate the bonbons.

      I ate the bonbons and sang.

      We don’t have that same problem if the first verb can only be intransitive. Readers wouldn’t be confused by the following sentence because they don’t expect a direct object after succumb

      I succumbed and ate the bonbons.


      It’s easy to say something you don’t mean to say when you put a verb that can be both transitive and intransitive before a transitive verb and don’t modify it in any way.

      I twisted and threw the ball.

      Does this mean I both twisted and threw the ball or I twisted around and then threw the ball?

      These kinds of problems can be difficult to see, which is another great reason to have someone else proofread your stories.

      As for helping verbs paired with action verbs, you can do it. You can definitely do it in dialogue. Yet, as in the example you used, sometimes the results don’t work. But many times they do. These work—

      I fainted and was thoroughly embarrassed.

      She fell and seemed embarrassed.

      Tom ate the candy and turned blue.

      Lola passed the test and was greatly relieved.

      Kenneth jumped higher on his third attempt and was successful.

      Part of the problem with your example is the mix of verb tenses. Another problem is that the two elements aren’t connected. Eating popcorn and being beautiful don’t have a logical connection.

      A great topic—thanks for asking your question. Let me know if this doesn’t help.

      • Sam says:

        Thank you so much! That helps a lot! Just to make sure that I fully understand, the sentence, “I walked to and watched the event” would be fine from a grammatical standpoint because the verbs are the same tense, even though, in this case, walked takes a preposition and watched doesn’t. (Nevertheless, it probably sounds better as “I walked to the event and watched it.)

        • Yes, that sentence is definitely okay. While grammar might seem picky, it actually allows us many ways to word our sentences.

          What you want to be careful with concerning prepositions after verbs is making sure the preposition fits. Make sure that if you’re using two prepositional phrases with the same verb that you include two different prepositions if necessary.

          So the boy sang into the can and at the top of his lungs rather than the boy sang into the can and the top of his lungs.

  8. Hamed says:

    Hi everybody and thanks for all the instructions.
    Please tell me about this one: Operational planning and control

    • Hamed, are you asking about operational as an adjective?

      Just from looking at those words, I’m guessing that most readers would understand them to be two different items—operational planning as the first and control as the second. I don’t think readers would assume this to mean operational planning and operational control, although that could be your meaning.

      But I’m reading operational control as a two-word item rather than an item modified by a temporary adjective. Something along the lines of ice cream. So where you have operational planning and control, someone else might write ice cream and cookies. Ice doesn’t belong with cookies any more than operational belongs with control.

      Or operational planning and control could be a unit of its own, a common expression always used in the same format.

      Let me know if I didn’t get at your issue.

  9. JLawesq says:

    Here are your citations. I first started at (Don’t let the legal bit intimidate you, English is English.) Then I looked up the case it cites and found a bevy of additional citations:

    “Under generally accepted rules of syntax, an initial modifier ‘will tend to govern all elements in the series unless it is repeated for each element.’ The American Heritage Book of English Usage chapter 2, ¶ 10 (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), (last visited May 18, 2006); see United States Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 896 F.2d 200, 203 (6th Cir.1990) (holding that the reasonable construction of the phrase ‘negligent act, error, or omission’ is that the policy covers only negligent and not intentional conduct); Ward Gen. Ins. Servs., Inc. v. Employers Fire Ins. Co., 114 Cal.App.4th 548, 554, 7 Cal.Rptr.3d 844 (Cal.Ct.App.2003) (stating that ‘[m]ost readers expect the first adjective in a series of nouns or phrases to modify each noun or phrase in the following series unless another adjective appears’); Lewis v. Jackson Energy Coop. Corp., 189 S.W.3d 87, 92 (Ky. 2005) (stating that it is ‘widely accepted that an adjective at the beginning of a conjunctive phrase applies equally to each object within the phrase. In other words, the first adjective in a series of nouns or phrases modifies each noun or phrase in the following series unless another adjective appears.’).”

    Washington Educ. Ass’n v. Nat’l Right to Work Legal Def. Found., Inc., 187 F. App’x 681, 682 (9th Cir. 2006)

    Thanks for your initial post to get me started down this rabbit hole. It was very well explained and I am very glad to have found a citation for the concept.

  10. Patty says:

    Perhaps a similar question: Do you need to use the two indefinite articles with coordinate nouns beginning with both the vowel sound and the consonant sound? For example, “I brought an apple and sandwich for lunch.” I’m an editor and I had inserted “a” before “sandwich,” but the author of the book wants the “a” deleted. It’s a small point, and I’ll probably defer to him. But now I’m second-guessing myself, as I routinely add indefinite articles if a list of things begins with various sounds (e.g., “she was an accountant and a tax specialist”). Am I being too picky?

    • I love these great questions. Thanks, Patty.

      CMOS 16 (5.73)—With a series of coordinate nouns, an article may appear before each noun but is not necessary . . .

      On the other hand, Gregg recommends using an article before each item.

      Which style guide are you going with? If CMOS, it looks like either option is acceptable. (From what I can tell, CMOS at one time recommended an article for each noun.)

      Both sources recommend only the first article with nouns that make up a single idea.

  11. Patty says:

    I follow CMOS generally, unless my clients have exceptions to it. I know that CMOS suggests that repeating the article is optional if the two nouns don’t represent a unit, but the guideline doesn’t weigh in on two separate nouns that would ordinarily require different indefinite articles (“a” and “an”), because of their different initial sounds.

    • The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference says that if one determiner doesn’t apply to every noun in a series, use separate determiners for each.

      And that makes sense.

      I saw in an online article (the Business Writing Blog) that Fowler also recommended using an article for each noun if the article would be different—” . . . if the sequence requires an as well as a (a minute, an hour, or a day) omission is not desirable.” Yet the blog author quoted the revised third edition and I couldn’t find the reference in my first edition.

      I think you could definitely point out these references to your author. If the sentences are similar to your example sentence, you could also point out the different rhythms. I brought an apple and a sandwich has a pleasing rhythm.

      However, if we’re talking fiction and this is a character’s dialogue or thought, you’d want to use what the character would use.

      Thanks for the chance to check into this a bit more.

  12. Patty says:

    P.S. I forgot to thank you for your quick reply!

  13. Patty says:

    Thanks, Beth. Those are terrific references! I’ve been adding articles in those different-beginning noun groups for so long now (decades!) that I couldn’t remember if it was just my quirk or some long-lost reference from my first employer, Harcourt-Brace.

    References always help. I’ll check my old Fowler.

    I agree that the rhythm of the example sentence almost begs for both articles. The actual sentence could probably more easily get away with using only one article. It was something like this: “A strong leader–an individual or company with the desire to excel–can make a big difference in the market.” The author didn’t like that I had inserted an “a” before company. Sheesh!

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