I wrote this technical text, which I found ambiguous:

What's a child expression? It's a call expression inside a function, which represents a parent call expression.

For the purposes of discussion in this question, let's simplify it to this:

What's a child sphere? It's a sphere inside a cube, which represents a parent shape.

How do I rewrite this sentence in a non-ambiguous way, to link the verb represents to the noun cube?

(Also, hypothetically, how would I rewrite it if I wanted to link the verb to sphere?)

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    As written, with a comma after cube, the sentence means that it's the positioning of the sphere inside the cube that represents whatever..... Nov 29, 2018 at 17:23
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    @RonaldSole Sorry, I don't feel I got your point. Do you mean that cube is already linked here to the verb because of the comma? So without a comma sphere would be linked to the verb? Nov 29, 2018 at 17:29
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    @NurbolAlpysbayev Ha! You replied to a comment I made (and then deleted) before completely reading the question. For others, my comment had been that my natural inclination would be to think of which as representing the combined single object a sphere inside a cube. (Like a piece single piece of artwork.) In other words, I didn't think of it as ambiguous at all until I read the read the rest of the question. But the question is actually how to refer to the sphere component specifically. Nov 29, 2018 at 19:05
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    @Lambie Style rules are closer to "best practices". Changing from "that" to "which" doesn't change the ambiguity; it only makes the clause nonessential. The ambiguity is whether "that/which represents a parent shape" refers to "cube", to "a sphere inside a cube", or to "sphere". Your answer does nothing to resolve that ambiguity. Asserting, "a 'that' clause can only refer to the adjacent word," does not make it so. If this rule is so prolific, simply provide evidence for it.
    – Tashus
    Nov 30, 2018 at 0:19
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    @Lambie: I heard the song of a nightingale, which was music to my ears (which refers to the song). I heard the song of a nightingale, which had recently taken up residence in my garden (which refers to a nightingale). Only pragmatics, not grammar, allows us to unambiguously determine the referent of which in such constructions. Dec 4, 2018 at 13:45

6 Answers 6


You can make the sentence less ambiguous by expressing the intended concept more explicitly. For example:

It's a sphere inside a cube, with the cube representing the parent shape of the sphere.


It's a sphere inside a cube, where the cube represents the parent shape of the sphere.

  • Thank you! I feel now it looks much better, however can you please explain the word with here? So this word has a meaning other than uniting things? Is it used here in the same or similar meaning as where? Can where be used here as well? Nov 29, 2018 at 17:36
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    +1. where can also be used if you change the participle representing to a tensed verb (...inside a cube, where the cube represents...), and you can even say ...inside a cube, the cube representing ...
    – TimR
    Nov 29, 2018 at 17:57
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    Yes. Sometimes you can resolve an ambiguity by changing the word order or being more careful in selection of pronouns, etc. But often, the simplest and clearest thing to do is to add a few words to explicitly say what you mean.
    – Jay
    Nov 29, 2018 at 20:47
  • There is no ambiguity in: a sphere inside a cube that represents the parent shape. That is a restricted clause with the that clause modifying cube.
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2018 at 15:20
  • @Lambie Again, the ambiguity is "a sphere inside a cube that represents the parent shape" vs. "a sphere inside a cube that represents the parent shape" or "a sphere inside a cube, which represents the parent shape" vs. "a sphere inside a cube, which represents the parent shape." The clause can apply to the entire noun phrase just as easily as to the single adjacent noun. Whether the clause is restrictive does not change the ambiguity.
    – Tashus
    Nov 30, 2018 at 16:11

Do you need to convert the single sentence to a single sentence? If so, I would go with the approaches chosen by Tashus ("... where the cube represents" or "... with the cube representing...") or Utkarsh Singh (using "former" or "latter" to refer to the item in question). If you're not restricted to a single sentence, you can simply repeat the noun in a new sentence:

It's a sphere inside a cube. The cube represents a parent shape...

UPDATE: As David Richerby points out, you could then combine the sentences with a semicolon or a connecting word:

It's a sphere inside a cube; the cube represents a parent shape...
It's a sphere inside a cube, and the cube represents a parent shape...
It's a sphere inside a cube, where the cube represents a parent shape...
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    Or join the two sentences back into one with a semicolon or "and". Nov 29, 2018 at 23:39
  • @DavidRicherby, yes.
    – Alan
    Nov 30, 2018 at 15:34
  • Or use a restricted clause with that. It's a bird in the tree that turns pink every night.
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2018 at 15:49

In my opinion, the usage of the determiner "which" herein will inevitably lead to ambiguity. One of the ways to avoid this, while still retaining the word "represents", can be to instead use a co-ordinating conjunction like "and" - It's a sphere inside a cube, and the former represents...(in case the subject is sphere).


The easiest way to disambiguate in speech (which is after all the only real language, to a first approximation) is simply to stress the word sphere and introduce a slightly longer pause before the next word. Orthographically, that would be represented as...

It's a sphere - inside a cube representing the "parent" shape

(Note that I've included "parent" in scare quotes because I don't exactly understand the usage in context. If OP knows his target audience will understand the expression, there's no need to call attention to the potentially problematic usage.)

  • Hi, thank you! Is it really orthographically correct? I mean how you wrote it, with the hyphen? I mean, I doubt I ever saw such constructions, but maybe I just didn't notice them. Nov 29, 2018 at 17:45
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    @NurbolAlpysbayev: You had the benefit of many historical Reforms of Russian orthography. To a lesser extent, Americans had the benefit of at least some reforms to spelling with Webster, but the English language has never really been under "State control", so it's not obvious how major changes could be enforced anyway. Particularly in Britain, where many if not most people could read and write a very long time ago, and wouldn't like to live through an age of "double standards". Nov 29, 2018 at 18:07
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    The real problem with trying to standardize English spelling is, whose pronunciations do you use? I'm reminded of a House Hunters International episode where the New Zealander real estate lady kept talking about the "dick"... which turned out to be the deck.
    – Martha
    Nov 29, 2018 at 18:16
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    @FumbleFingers to be pedantic about it, it should not be a hyphen (which is narrow, and used in constructs like "fumble-fingered" (heh) and at the end of a line when a word is broken due to the column width allowed) but a dash (which is wider). The old rule for typewriters was to use two hyphens to represent a dash, but with computers we can actually use the "figure dash" "‒" "en dash" "–" and "em dash" "—" (named for the widths of the "n" and "m" characters, the latter being the wider version). If you have a Windows computer, use Character Map's Advanced view and search for "dash". Nov 29, 2018 at 18:58
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    @Lambie There are several comments explaining the ambiguity. The ambiguity is whether the clause refers to "cube", to "a sphere inside a cube", or to "sphere".
    – Tashus
    Nov 30, 2018 at 0:21

In terms of the particular sentence you gave,

What's a child sphere? It's a sphere inside a cube, which represents a parent shape.

There's only one thing wrong with it: the comma. You want

What's a child sphere? It's a sphere inside a cube which represents a parent shape.

When parsing a sentence, the comma gives us an indication as to the sentence structure. In your sentence, the comma indicates that the clause "inside a cube" is complete and you're beginning a relative clause referring to the sphere. Commas also correspond to pauses in normal speech, so that may help (though the correspondence isn't perfect).

This doesn't mean that this is the right sentence to use; while it's (technically) unambiguous, someone who is not reading carefully is likely to read it wrong.


It's a sphere inside a cube that represents a parent shape. The that clause only goes with the cube.

There's a market along the road that runs to town.

There is no ambiguity here at all.

It's a man in a *balloon that floats** on the water.

My advice is kill the which in this case.

"that represents a parent shape" is a restrictive clause modifying cube. It does not modify: sphere inside a cube, which is a noun plus a prepositional phrase.

  • restrictive clauses modify a noun. Not a noun and a preposition phrase as found in the OP's sentence.

Example of an unrestricted clause from the Oxford Dictionary [online] made into a restricted one.

clauses, restricted and unrestricted

It says: A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers.

  • unrestricted: The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

  • restricted: The items that are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

The lines in the painting that hangs on the North Wall are not straight.

The other sentence in the question using a restrictive clause:

It's a call expression inside a function that represents a parent call expression.

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    Not my DV, but I'm not sure that this is correct. "There's a market along the road that sells firewood." is a perfectly reasonable sentence where that sells firewood obviously refers to market.
    – Tashus
    Nov 29, 2018 at 18:52
  • The way I have written your sentence from your question is devoid of ambiguity and it uses clear, simple grammar. Are you trying to make your sentence clear or discuss all possible ambiguities in English?
    – Lambie
    Nov 29, 2018 at 19:39
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    I agree that my sentence is ambiguous, as someone could interpret it to mean that the road sells firewood. However, a sentence can still be grammatically acceptable despite ambiguity. I can find no grammatical rule that such clauses must be adjacent to their antecedents, and I can find plenty of examples to the contrary.
    – Tashus
    Nov 29, 2018 at 19:53
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    @Lambie You say there is no ambiguity because "that represents a parent shape" can only apply to "cube", since they are adjacent. However, I don't believe that rule is as steadfast as you think. It could instead apply to the noun phrase "a sphere inside a cube" as a whole. It could even apply to "sphere" alone, although I agree that stylistically this would be a poor choice due to the lack of clarity resulting from the distance between the phrase and its intended antecedent. However, poor stylistic choices that introduce ambiguity are not equivalent to incorrect grammar.
    – Tashus
    Nov 29, 2018 at 23:25
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    @Lambie Are you a native English speaker? Do you have a formal education in English grammar? You seem to be confused on this issue and resistant to any information that contradicts your preconceptions. The ambiguity is certainly present; several native speakers have confirmed this. A noun and a prepositional phrase can quite readily form a noun phrase. Such constructions are explicitly listed in the Wikipedia article on noun phrases.
    – Tashus
    Dec 3, 2018 at 22:32

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