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May I put the word "that" after the adverbial clause and not right after the object "defects"?

"The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects on the electrical installation in the area that may represent a risk ..."

How to make clear that the word "that" specifies the object "defects" and not "area"? And please, correct me, if I use incorrect terminology.

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  • To my mind it would be "perverse" to interpret the version as given above to mean the inspection is only concerned with finding defects in that specific area - which must have been previously identified as the (only) area that represents a risk. Syntactically you could validly move that to be immediately after defects, but I think that would be rather "unusual". And to be honest, I wouldn't say it was particularly perverse to interpret that as implying the defects are only a risk if they occur in that specific area (which presumably isn't the intended sense). – FumbleFingers Aug 21 '18 at 14:30
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    You could move "that may represent a risk" to be right after "defects", so it reads "The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects that may represent a risk in the electrical installation in the area..." but really I think it's pretty clear as it is. It is unlikely someone would read it and think that the area represents a risk. – stangdon Aug 21 '18 at 14:42
  • @stangdon: That's certainly a good way of removing any possible "ambiguity", but it does seem to be solving a problem that doesn't really exist. As you say, we'd probably all agree the same "likely meaning" for several variant phrasings that could in principle mean something significantly different. But I suggest that if a writer truly did intend one of those more "unexpected" meanings, he'd need to make some far more dramatic changes to have a reasonable chance of getting his message across. – FumbleFingers Aug 21 '18 at 15:07
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I can think of two solutions:

"The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects on the electrical installation in the area, that may represent a risk..."

Adding the comma will create a pause, separating the words area and that. Compare this to "identify defects on the electrical installation, in the area that may represent a risk..."

"The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects on the electrical installation that may represent a risk..."

Remove the confusion by taking out in the area. This, however, does remove a detail which may be important in the context that you are using it in.

EDIT:

"The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects, on the electrical installation in the area, that may represent a risk..."

This is also grammatically correct. In this instance, on the electrical installation in the area is inserted into the sentence "The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects that may represent a risk..." as a piece of additional information. This makes it obvious that it is the defects that represent a risk, since "defects" and "risk" are in the same clause.

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  • And what about putting comma after "defects" and "area" as well? – user80553 Aug 21 '18 at 14:58
  • @McFly that is also correct. Added to answer – Aric Aug 21 '18 at 15:09
  • Neither of these seem particularly correct. That when used as a relative pronoun is always restrictive and thus not used with commas. I've likewise never seen separating a non-introductory prepositional phrase with commas. – eques Aug 21 '18 at 15:37
  • Without the commas the relative pronoun "that" would apply to the electrical installation in the area, which is what the OP is trying to avoid. – Aric Aug 21 '18 at 20:49
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The purpose of the inspection is to identify defects on the electrical installation in the area that may represent a risk ...

OP asks:

How to make clear that the word "that" specifies the object "defects" and not "area"? And please, correct me, if I use incorrect terminology.

What you wish to make clear is that the clause that may represent a risk modifies defects.

The solution is simple and does not rely upon punctuation but upon syntax alone:

The purpose of the inspection is to identify in the electrical installation defects that represent a risk.

We are able to reposition the adjunct phrase in the electrical installation so that it does not stand between defects and the clause modifying that noun.

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