The Grammarphobia Blog

Green eggs and ham

Q: Here’s an old Seussian question: Is the ham green? The title of the book is Green Eggs and Ham, but does the adjective “green” modify the ham as well as the eggs? I know what the book cover shows, but you can’t judge a book by the cover.

A: When an adjective (like “green”) appears at the head of a series of nouns (like “eggs and ham”), we tend to assume it applies to all of them.

And in the case of Green Eggs and Ham, we’d be right! Both the eggs and the ham are green in Dr. Seuss’s beloved children’s book.

How do we know? We looked at the pictures! In every case, the plate held aloft by the character named Sam I Am contains bright green eggs (apparently sunny-side up) as well as bright green ham.

So obviously the author, otherwise known as Theodor Seuss Geisel, meant the adjective “green” to modify both of the following nouns: “eggs” and “ham.”

Of course, he could have avoided any ambiguity by calling his book Green Eggs and Green Ham. But that just doesn’t have the charm of Green Eggs and Ham!

Besides, that would be quite unnecessary. Not only does the placement of the adjective do the trick, but the book’s cover also shows the plate of green food.

Writers ought to be aware that an adjective shouldn’t be used before a series of nouns unless it applies to them all.

A phrase like “her late father and mother” will be understood as meaning that both parents are dead. If only one is deceased, the order should be reversed: “her mother and late father.”

You might be interested in a blog posting we wrote a couple of years ago on the order of adjectives in English. It explains, for example, why we say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress.”

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