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I've looked around, but I couldn't find an answer for this question. Here's the example phrase that I'm trying to translate that I pulled from a light novel:

せりとレタスとキャベツの違い

I'm not sure whether it means. My guess is either:

the difference of parsley, lettuce, and cabbage

or:

parsley, lettuce, and cabbage's difference (difference modifies cabbage only)

Logically, it should be the second, but I seem to recall that it can mean the first if you reason out the literal translation.

  • 1
    How else would you say "The difference of parsley, lettuce, and cabbage" in Japanese? – Micky Apr 9 '15 at 6:08
  • Use the list as before, end with the wa particle, and a verb for difference between, Right, I'll add that I pulled this from a light novel and that I'm trying to translate it properly. – MingShun Apr 9 '15 at 6:11
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    Do you mean「せりとレタスとキャベツは違う」? It'd be a sentence "Parsley, lettuce, and cabbage are different." 「せりとレタスとキャベツの違い」is a noun phrase, not a sentence. – Micky Apr 9 '15 at 9:02
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Recently, @naruto mentioned the phrase 頭が赤い魚を食べた猫, which can be understood in many ways. There is some ambiguity in how each word relates to each other.

Among other possibilities, it could mean

  • [(頭が赤い)魚]を食べた猫 (red-headed fish)
  • [(頭が赤い)+(魚を食べた)]猫 (red-headed cat)

The same applies here. Consider the following pattern:

AとBとCのD

As far as logic and grammar is concerned, this can be interpreted as either one of these possibilities:

  1. (AとBとC)のD
  2. (AとB)と(CのD)
  3. Aと[(BとC)のD]

Note that A, B, C, and D can be nouns or noun phrases. If the latter, it could get even more confusing, so I won't consider this case.

Usually context resolves the ambiguity and makes it obvious. For the example you gave, that would be possibility (3): the difference between certain kinds of vegetables.

To illustrate the point, let me give some examples for each possibility.

(《》 markers added by me for clarity)

①:

  • 《せりとレタスとキャベツ》の違い
  • 《ブランデーと梅酒と柑橘【かんきつ】ジャム》の大人[珈琲]【コーヒー】
  • garden COLORING BOOK 《小鳥と花と動物》のぬり絵
  • 《君と彼女と彼女》の恋

②:

  • 勇者と少女と《変化の指輪》
  • 「使命」と「運命」と「人生の意味」
  • 僕と君と《夜空の星》
  • 星杯騎士団【グラールリッター】と七耀教会【しちようきょうかい】と《黒【くろ】の史書【ししょ】》
  • コナンと平次【へいじ】と《恋の暗号》

③:

Note the first sentence.

  • [ポスドク]【postdoctor(al)】問題と《アメリカと日本の違い》
  • 下妻物語【しもつまものがたり】と《ウルルと森の物語》
  • 竹取物語【たけとりものがたり】と《伊邪那岐命【いざなぎのみこと】の伊邪那美命【いざなみのみこと】の物語》
  • 《伊邪那岐命【イザナギノミコト】と伊邪那美命【イザナミノミコト】の夫婦神》と《伊邪那岐命と伊邪那美命の争いを仲裁した菊理媛大神【ククリヒメノオオカミ】》が祀られている
  • 和風レシピと《梅酒と梅干しの作り方》

I had a hard time coming up with examples for case ③, but it's definitely possible.

To summarize, only context and common sense can tell you what の applies to, it depends on what the nouns or noun phrases A, B, C, and D are.

Lastly, if you really wanted to leave no ambiguity, you could resort to a lengthy phrase that says it explicitly, such as せりとレタスとキャベツという3つの(野菜・植物)の違い.

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You usually say AとBの違い to mean "the difference between A and B" and AとBとCの違い to mean "the difference among A, B and C", and I think it would be more natural to interpret せりとレタスとキャベツの違い as "the difference of parsley, lettuce, and cabbage" than "parsley, lettuce and the difference of cabbage".

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