Humorous distributive grammar structures in English


Yesterday at dinner my dining companion said, when speaking of a certain “bad neighborhood:” “…the smell of weed and hookers.”

For a moment my mind flashed and I imagined one of the Tenderloin brownstones (Ellis and Post-ish) whence a head sticks out the window because it has been awoken by an acrid, herbal smell and a powdery, cigarette-y, smell wafting in the open window and it bellows: “Get your weed and hookers out of here, some decent people have to go to work in the morning!”

Curiously, the other two listeners at the table had also been so aurally misdirected and, upon asking the raconteuse to clarify, much mirth ways had.*

And here lies the problem in our English, we lack a way, both in speech and typographically, to limit the distribution of a concept across a conjunction. Case in point, and borrowing the C ternary operator structure:

the smell of (weed && hookers) ? “the smell of weed and the smell of hookers” : “(the smell of weed) and hookers”

Now, we at the table took the distribution to mean (the smell of weed) and (the smell of hookers), the first case in the statement above. We distributed (much like the power of distribution over multiplication) across the conjunction. The speaker intended, we discovered, the second case. The interesting problem is that there’s no way to limit this in spoken discourse without an appeal to some sort of visual aid, a gestural cue, or some implicit context.

The problem also appears in written discourse, however:

“the smell of weed and hookers”

To disambiguate we could try “the smell of weed, and hookers.” The “,” is unnecessary here. One could, make an appeal to including the serial comma as in (American) English writing as model: “Tom, Dick, and Harry” might suggest that “the smell of weed, and hookers” is acceptable, but that simply doesn’t scan right to me for a dyadic entity.

The only way I can get this to work is by appealing to computer science, which is naturally under a mandate to be very clear in the order in which statements are processed. “(The smell of weed) and hookers” winds up being very clear, but that’s certainly not standard English writing.

And lo, here is the problem again in the wild from The Sydney Morning Herald:

The same tests revealed that infected men were less intelligent and prone to novelty-seeking behaviour.

Here it’s less distributing across the and. Did that mean the infected men were “less intelligent” and “less prone to novelty-seeking behaviour,” or were they “(less intelligent) and (prone to novelty-seeking behaviour)?

I’m not sure what the right method for disambiguation is, or if it’s even desirable given the humor it can provide.

*: This was actually even funnier than this first transformation because once I disambiguated that it was “the smell of weed” and “hook_something_” I thought she meant “the smell of weed” and “hookahs”. But no, she meant as I originally mis-apprehended: the smell of weed STOP and hookers.