A Syntactical Mexican Mystery

My kids like the Mexican restaurant chain Rubio’s and so do I. Part of the appeal is the fun of guessing each week what comes with their kids meal. The menu says that along with the main (burrito, quesadilla etc.) each kid’s meal

Includes a choice of: applesauce, chips, beans or rice; and a churro.

Walk through that punctuation mindfield and consider my family’s last three trips to Rubio’s.

1. After I order the kid’s meal, the cashier asks “Do you want beans or rice with that?”. I say “rice”.

They bring us applesauce, chips, rice and a churro.

2. After I order the kid’s meal, the cashier asks “Which side order do you want?”. I say “rice”.

They bring us rice and a churro. I ask about the applesauce and chips and they say that the dish comes with only one side order

3. After I order the kid’s meal, the cashier asks “Which side order do you want?”. I say “rice”.

They brings us rice only. I go back and ask for a churro and they say that if I wanted a churro instead, I should have asked for a churro instead of rice.

Apparent interpretations of the menu text, where M = meal brought to the table, A = Applesauce, C = Chips, B = Beans, R = Rice and CH = Churro.

Cashier 1 M = A + C + (B or R) + CH
Cashier 2 M = A or C or B or R + CH
Cashier 3 M = A or C or B or R or CH

Who is correct?

p.s. Yes, I notice that we keep getting less food each time, but I am assuming this about how different staff read the menu and not the declining state of the economy.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “A Syntactical Mexican Mystery”

  1. Taking the punctuation at face value, Cashier 2 had it right. “Your choice of [a comma c comma b or r] semicolon and CH”. The semicolon sets “and CH” apart from the comma delineated “Your choice of … ” list. This however assumes that the person who designed the menu understood the difference between a comma and a semicolon, and used them the way the management actually intended. Which may not be a particularly safe assumption.

    1. #2 seems clearly right, though I’d describe it as (A or C or B or R) + CH.
      I don’t think the menu writer misunderstood, since if #3 is correct it would have been easy to write “a choice of applesauce, chips, beans, rice, or a churro,” as SP says below.

      1. I’d describe it as (A or C or B or R) + CH.

        Yes, because in symbolic logic AND takes precedence over OR, just as in algebra TIMES takes precedence over PLUS.

        If we’re following the rules of logic, such as is used in computer programming languages, what Keith has

        Cashier 2 M = A or C or B or R + CH

        could also be rendered as

        Cashier 2 M = A or C or B or (R + CH)

        which I don’t think is what Keith had in mind.

        According to the rules of logic, the person who says, “I’m going to get a hamburger or a hot dog and a cup of coffee,” wants one of two things: (a) a hamburger; or (b) a hot dog and a cup of coffee.

  2. “but I am assuming this about how different staff read the menu and not the declining state of the economy.”

    Why? That does appear likely to play a role.

        1. Isn’t the possessive form “Humphreys’ “? You only add the ‘s if it’s a word of one syllable, I thought.

          Unless the word is (e.g.) “Ross,” in which case it is not “Ross’s” but “Ross’ .”

  3. 2 is most in line with the syntax. Churro is clearly set off separately (and is more of a sweet dessert thing so that’s logical to come as its own item.) If the choice was just between beans and rice, why are the words applesauce and chips after “choice of”? The most clear writing to align with each result:
    1: Includes applesauce, chips, a choice of beans or rice; and a churro.
    2: as written
    3: Includes a choice of applesauce, chips, beans, rice, or a churro.

  4. But why would anyone want a chorro (also slang for diarrhea) when visiting a Mexican restaurant?

    Churros are delicious, on the other hand.

  5. Thinking about it a bit more, I wonder if the menu didn’t use the simpler “Includes a churro and a choice of…” and I expect it’s because despite not being logically essential, the mind wants the items to appear in the sentence in the same order one usually eats them.

  6. If they moved the colon to follow “Includes” and used the Oxford comma, they’d be cool:

    Includes: a choice of applesauce, chips, beans, or rice; and a churro.

    1. That intention would be my best guess; but if so it would be far better to say, “Includes a churro and a choice of applesauce, chips, beans, or rice.” What we have here in clearly bad drafting, even if there was a clear intention; and there might not have been.

  7. I find the menu no more or less confusing than the title of the post.

    The mystery is entirely syntactical. It’s not Mexican in any way. If they had added up the prices incorrectly, would that be a mexican math issue?

    Not to mention that the restaurant started in San Diego, California, and is not particularly Mexican outside of its origination story.

    Nevertheless, it is so clearly a poorly worded version of this: “A churro, and your choice of rice, beans, chips or applesauce.”

  8. It seems a little bizarre for a Mexican food chain to have a choice of beans OR rice. Beans and rice are almost as inseparable as salt & pepper. Perhaps the intent was “Includes a choice of: applesauce, chips, beans and rice; or a churro”?

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