9

The sentence here is quite confusing. I wrote this.

Jessica lives in the city of Halifax, the capital of the province of Nova Scotia, where the unemployment rate is 5 percent.

A fellow reader is confused: Is the writer talking about the unemployment rate of Halifax or Nova Scotia?

I want to say the rate in Halifax is 5 percent. How do I establish clarity without breaking the sentence in two and repeating "Halifax"?

  • @MichaelHarvey This seems like a good alternative. However, a person who doesn't know these names may misinterpret it as city, province, country: ... lives in the capital city of Nova Scotia, Canada. – AIQ Aug 12 at 6:52
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    @MichaelHarvey don't answer in comments. I think that the ambiguity still remains in your rephrased sentence. – James K Aug 12 at 7:03
  • @wjandrea: No, there's no participle here... – psmears Aug 13 at 13:09

10 Answers 10

18

Halifax has an unemployment rate of 5%.

Although the original sentence could be parsed as using parenthetical commas, it could also be parsed as having each comma functioning to have what comes after it modifying what comes before it.

To make it clear that it's actually parenthetical information, use actual parentheses:

  1. Jessica lives in the city of Halifax (the capital of the province of Nova Scotia) where the unemployment rate is 5 percent.

Here, there is no way of misinterpreting the fact that it's Halifax with the unemployment rate.


Nova Scotia has an unemployment rate of 5%.

On the other hand, if you wanted to say that it's Nova Scotia with the unemployment rate, remove the second comma and, thereby, any indication of parenthetical information. Also, rephrase the sentence slightly:

  1. Jessica lives in the city of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia where the provincial unemployment rate is 5 percent.

Now, without the second comma, everything after the first comma modifies what came before it. Also, by writing provincial unemployment rate, it's impossible to mistake it as referring to Halifax. The use of provincial also makes it clear that Nova Scotia is a province.

  • 1
    Your option 1 works perfectly for me. Btw, did you mean to not put a comma between the closing parenthesis and "where" in option 1? – AIQ Aug 12 at 16:54
  • @AIQ Absolutely. I used it as restrictive information, an essential part of the sentence that is not considered additional. A comma there could have been represented with another set of parentheses, which I was deliberately avoiding. – Jason Bassford Aug 12 at 17:51
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    @AIQ: Yes, a comma is needed in "the capital of Nova Scotia[,] where the provincial unemployment rate is 5 percent." Omitting the comma is ungrammatical, or at silly-worst could be interpreted as a restrictive clause, whose antecedent would be the most recent common noun — e.g., "Halifax is the capital of NS where the PUR is 5%, and Amherst is the capital of NS where the PUR is 7%." The comma is needed. – Quuxplusone Aug 13 at 16:45
  • @Quuxplusone Reread the second bold heading. The second sentence is meant to assign Nova Scotia an unemployment rate of 5%, not Halifax. The lack of a comma makes it restrictive, and its antecedent correctly is Nova Scotia—as you've actually pointed out. Only the first sentence is about assigning Halifax the unemployment rate. – Jason Bassford Aug 14 at 4:05
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    @JasonBassford: Unfortunately, that's not how restrictive clauses work. There is only one Nova Scotia — there's no sense in talking about a "Nova Scotia where the PUR is 5%" as if to distinguish that Nova Scotia from other Nova Scotias. There is only one Nova Scotia, where the PUR is 5%. – Quuxplusone Aug 14 at 14:03
20

The ambiguity arises because you have one sentence doing three jobs. It is telling us which city Jessica lives in, where that city is, and what the unemployment rate is. The simple fix is to split the sentence, repeating "Halifax"

Jessica lives in the city of Halifax, the capital of the province of Nova Scotia. In Halifax, the unemployment rate is five percent.

Jessica lives in the city of Halifax, where the unemployment rate is five percent. (do you need to say that Halifax is in Nova Scotia?)

Another way is to indicate a context in other sentences:

Jessica lives in the city of Halifax, the capital of the province of Nova Scotia, where the unemployment rate is five percent. This compares well with other Canadian cities. In Ontario, the rate is ten percent. However in the rest of Nova Scotia the unemployment rate is only two percent...

  • 1
    I actually wanted a sentence that is a bit heavy on the details but not compromising the clarity. Breaking them up kind of feels like I don't know how to write at the level I am writing for (which is actually true). – AIQ Aug 12 at 6:55
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    Then consider my last option: providing sufficient context for the reader to deduce that you are talking about cities – James K Aug 12 at 6:59
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    @AIQ. One of the commonest mistakes that native English speakers make, is to make their sentences too long. In "Mind the Stop" G.V. Carey says that the full stop is unlike every other punctuation mark, in that writing is usually improved by adding more of them. – Martin Bonner Aug 12 at 14:18
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    My own first reaction to the original version was that too much information was being crammed into one sentence, as if there were some compelling to need to mention "everything all at once" instead of pausing for breath after establishing one point, and then starting a new sentence to establish a separate point. – Lorendiac Aug 13 at 12:40
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    If your reader didn't know better, they might think that Ontario is "another Canadian city". – Michael Seifert Aug 13 at 19:10
12

I think the simple answer is, Don't be afraid to break up the sentence.

I'd write, "Jessica lives in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia. The unemployment rate in Halifax is 5%."

We have a fair number of questions on this site about "how do I eliminate the ambiguity without adding more words". Very often the answer is, "There is no other way. You have to add more words."

  • 1
    If you break it into separate sentences there is no need to explicitly repeat the direct object. So in Jessica lives in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia. The unemployment rate there is 5%. it should be clear that the second sentence is about the same direct object as the first (the city, Halifax), and not about its clarification (the fact that it is the capital of Nova Scotia). The ambiguity will remain though if the sentences are merely heard, not read. – neXus Aug 12 at 15:11
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    @neXus That's still ambiguous IMO, cause "there" may be referring to Halifax or Nova Scotia, even if the latter is not technically correct. – wjandrea Aug 12 at 16:12
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    @neXus Hmm, I'm not aware of any rule of English grammar that says that a pronoun must always refer to the direct object of the previous sentence. If I said, "John entered the room. He was very tired", would you say that "he" must refer to "the room" because that's the direct object? Or very much like this example, "Sally was born in a hospital that was built during World War 2. That was a terrible conflict that ravaged Europe." Surely we'd understand that World War 2 was a terrible conflict, not that the hospital was. Etc. – Jay Aug 12 at 20:13
  • This is the only solution that works for me. – TonyK Aug 13 at 19:33
6

Reorder the clauses so there is no ambiguity. The subordinate clauses can only refer to things mentioned earlier in the sentence, so:

Jessica lives in Halifax, a city with an unemployment rate of five percent and the capital of the province of Nova Scotia.

You might want to replace "and" by "which is", but IMO the grammatical arguments either way are mostly pedantry.

  • This is a good alternative. I wonder though if the sentence can be misinterpreted in the following way: Jessica lives in Halifax, a city with (an unemployment rate of five percent) and ([with] the capital of the province of Nova Scotia). Here, "the capital of the province of NS" seems like its connecting to "a city with". – AIQ Aug 12 at 17:07
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    Maybe it's just me, but sentences with the cadence of "I'd like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope" — even when their grammar is absolutely correct, as in this case — rub me the wrong way. "Jessica lives in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia and a city with an unemployment rate of five percent" would address AIQ's misinterpretation while preserving my discomfort. – Quuxplusone Aug 13 at 16:51
6

I really like alephzero's answer, because I find long mid-sentence parenthetical (or dashed) clauses not really compatible with direct journalistic or business writing, which is the style that is perhaps being aimed for here.

I'd consider:

  • J lives in Nova Scotia's capital, Halifax, a city with a 5% unemployment rate.

or if you feel the audience needs to be reminded that NS is a province:

  • J lives in the capital of the province of Nova Scotia, Halifax, a city with a 5% unemployment rate.

and if the opposite sense is intended:

  • J lives in Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, where the provincial unemployment rate is 5%.
  • What do you think about this: J lives in the capital city of the province of Nova Scotia, Halifax, where the unemployment rate is 5 percent? – AIQ Aug 12 at 17:02
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    "J lives in Nova Scotia's capital, Halifax, a city with a 5% unemployment rate." — Nice! "J lives in the capital of the province of Nova Scotia, Halifax" — Watch out! The reader might think "Isn't the famous Nova Scotia in Canada or something? Where's this 'Nova Scotia, Halifax' they're talking about?" Setting off the nonrestrictive clause "Halifax" with dashes instead of commas would address this problem. "J lives in the capital city of Nova Scotia — Halifax — where..." But really, breaking up the sentence would be best. Feels like we're playing Grammar Tetris here. :) – Quuxplusone Aug 13 at 16:57
  • Make it even smoother. "Jessica lives in the Nova Scotia capital of Halifax where the unemployment rate is 5%." – Stephen M. Webb Aug 13 at 17:41
5

Use of parentheses will easily clarify this:

Jessica lives in the city of Halifax (capital of the province of Nova Scotia), where the unemployment rate is 5 percent.

The focus, and hence the unemployment rate, remains with Halifax.

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    Yes, this seems the simplest way to clarify. Conversely, if the other meaning were intended then the closing bracket could be moved to after "percent". – Especially Lime Aug 14 at 7:58
  • Yes, precisely. – Davo Aug 14 at 11:13
2

Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia has an unemployment rate of 5 percent. It is here that Jessica lives.

I am working on the premise that you would not list Halifax' unemployment rate if you did not intend to put it into some relation to Jessica's living situation, so this expository style gives you a good starting place for creating the context you want to establish for Jessica. Instead of "lives", something more specific like "moved in order to work at Wooly's, a company specialising in mirror symmetrical pairs of socks" can be used in order to tie this into whatever comes next in a cohesive manner.

2

Another option: turn it inside out.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Jessica lives, the unemployment rate is 5%.

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    You've made Halifax the subject of the sentence, rather than Jessica. That might not work well, depending on what the context is. – David Richerby Aug 13 at 21:15
0

Jessica lives in Nova Scotia--specifically, in Halifax, where the unemployment rate is 5%.

As for the original version, this is a worthwhile sentence only if the 5% unemployment rate is important to/for Jessica, and that very soon now we'll get to the point.

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Bruce E Trumbo is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
-1

Deemphasis on the city being the capital: Jessica lives in the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia (the Capital of the Province) where city unemployment rate is 5 percent.

Emphasis on the city being the capital: Jessica lives in the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia - the Capital of the Province - where city unemployment rate is 5 percent.

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Bytech is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 2
    Sidenote, in this case "city" shouldn't be capitalized since Halifax's official title is Halifax Regional Municipality, not City of Halifax. "Capital" and "province" also shouldn't be capitalized. – wjandrea Aug 12 at 16:13
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    Still ambiguous -- does the 5% unemployment rate apply to all cities in the province, or just the mentioned Halifax. – JCRM Aug 13 at 8:34

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