I’m trying to avoid ambiguity when writing a list of items. My confusion comes from describing one item using multiple adjectives versus a list of similar items. My examples are:
1) I ate green apples, yellow apples, and red apples.
2) I ate green, yellow, and red apples.
Is the second sentence equivalent to the first sentence? If not, would the second sentence refer to a batch of apples, where a single apple in the batch exhibits all the colors mentioned?
You ask an interesting question. Whether the modifiers are understood to refer to a single item from the group, or to different items from the group, is likely inferred from the item semantics. If it cannot be inferred, then it will be ambiguous (and may be interpreted differently by different people).
Consider two examples:
I like red, yellow, and green apples.
Here it will generally be assumed that you mean individual apples that are either red, yellow, or green, not apples that are tricolored, because we have some knowledge of what apples look like.
I like red, white, and blue flags.
Here it will generally be assumed that you mean tricolor flags, because most readers will be familiar with flags that have multiple colors, and perhaps less familiar with single-color flags. However, interpretations may vary.
To remove the ambiguity, replace “and” with “or”:
I like red, white, or blue flags.
Now it is clear that you mean individual flags that are only one of the acceptable colors. However, it is a bit more natural to make it clear that “or” refers to the colors, not whether you like them:
I like flags that are red, white, or blue.
This construction also makes it easy to unambiguously specify tricolored preferences:
I like flags that are red, white, and blue.