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The PHB (p. 144) says:

If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can’t cast spells.

How am I supposed to parse this, as

"If you wear armor with which you lack proficiency, you have disadvantage on
(a) any ability check involving any ability,
(b) any saving throw involving any ability,
(c) any attack roll specifically involving Strength or Dexterity, and
(d) you can't cast spells."

OR as

"If you wear armor with which you lack proficiency, you have disadvantage on
(a) any ability check involving Strength or Dexterity,
(b) any saving throw involving Strength or Dexterity,
(c) any attack roll involving Strength or Dexterity, and
(d) you can't cast spells."

Further, how am I supposed to know which interpretation is correct? Am I expected to correlate it with other information in the PHB, or is there a standard way to parse grammar when it is vague (for example, always assume ellipses in coordination when possible).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Aside: "you have disadvantage on ... d) you can't cast spells" implies you need two layers of bullet points \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    Oct 7 '21 at 11:04
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Armor is meant to interfere with mobility.

Penalties for non-proficiency are meant to reflect the difference between your own training (without armor) in comparison to now having your range of motion limited by the various armors. Training to fight or cast spells with no armor is very different from casting or sneaking in heavy plate. It makes little sense to penalize your constitution, wisdom, charisma or intelligence abilities if it's only your mobility that is hampered.


Using your own parsing:

If you wear armor with which you lack proficiency, you have disadvantage on

  • any ability check involving Strength or Dexterity,
  • any saving throw involving Strength or Dexterity,
  • any attack roll involving Strength or Dexterity, and
  • you can't cast spells."
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    \$\begingroup\$ "March for hours without rest" (Constitution) or "pass yourself off in a disguise" as a knight (Deception: Charisma) seem like they would be harder to do in armor one was not trained to use. If I had never worn a great helm, that could reasonably hinder my ability to, "Look around for clues" (Investigation: Intelligence) or "detect the presence of something (Wisdom: Perception). I'm not saying you are wrong, I was just hoping there was something more authoritative than "which interpretation feels right to you?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 2 '21 at 6:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt You will not find explicit game data errata that will spell the awnser out for you. In this case you are "Over reading" the passage and are confusing yourself. If you would use a sentence diagram you would see that the specified modifiers of "Strength or Dexterity" apply to all the previous categories of "ability check, saving throw, or attack roll." This isn't a matter of "Which interpretation feels right to you," but rather the trap of over analysis we all fall prey to from time to time. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 '21 at 6:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt these are examples of "the DM can decide to give you Disadvantage based on the circumstances surrounding your roll". \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    May 2 '21 at 7:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Armor is meant to interfere with mobility", and yet spellcasters can't cast verbal only spells, even with Silent Spell. That said, I don't have a great answer that doesn't start assuming designer intent. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 '21 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoelHarmon Most likely they said "cannot cast spells" rather than "cannot cast spells that have a somatic or material component" just to keep it simple and straightforward. \$\endgroup\$ May 3 '21 at 21:32
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The sentence is, very technically, ambiguous. But it's perfectly clear what is meant

An example of a sentence with the same construction that is similarly technically ambiguous:

I love any dog, cat, or fish that sings, and squirrels.

Technically it's possible I love all cats and dogs, but for fish, they must also sing. I, personally, would never read it like this.

The rules state

If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can’t cast spells.

If they wanted to word it differently, they would have done so, something like this:

If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check or saving throw, any attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can’t cast spells.

They did not word it like this, so we do not interpret it like that. On some extremely theoretical level, this sentence is ambiguous. But the construction where the Str/Dex requirement applies solely to attack rolls is so difficult to get out of this sentence that I cannot imagine they even possibly intended it.

Furthermore, as Play Patrice's answer shows, we can determine what the intent was simply by what this rule is meant to do: mechanically implement the lack of mobility that comes from wearing armor one does not know how to wear.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It is reasonably convincing that other rules instances of armor interacting with Strength and Dexterity only. But the 'had they wanted to say it differently they would have' argument could be just as easily used to say had they wanted to clearly imply the second interpretation, they would have said, "If you wear armor with which you lack proficiency, you can't cast spells and you have disadvantage on rolls which involve Strength and Dexterity, including ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls." \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    May 2 '21 at 15:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt No because that requires a very different kind of assumption. The, by far, more easily gotten interpretation is the one I've described. Your requirement assumes they even thought of the alternative meaning and chose to avoid it. Mine assumes they never even considered it and if they had they would have worded it differently \$\endgroup\$ May 2 '21 at 15:25
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I am a professor of English and worked as an editor in my younger days.

Assuming the authors of the D&D books are competent at English, the one and only possible legitimate interpretation is

"If you wear armor with which you lack proficiency, you have disadvantage on (a) any ability check involving Strength or Dexterity, (b) any saving throw involving Strength or Dexterity, (c) any attack roll involving Strength or Dexterity, and (d) you can't cast spells."

Any other interpretation violates the principles of modern written American English.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer could be improved by explicitly stating how it would violate the principles of English and what those principles are \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7 '21 at 2:25

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