comma series or apposition: the husband of his sister, a former spy

bball909

Member
English -American
There was a sentence in the NY Times that read: "He was the husband of Mr. Assad’s only sister, a former spy chief and the deputy defense minister."

Is this poorly written because of ambiguity? Could not the meaning of sentence mean either he was all three of the aforementioned things, or he was the husband of Assad's sister, who is described as a former spy chief and the deputy defense minister. Logic would tell me that it is not that one, but gramatically it could be either, correct?
 
  • lorelord

    Senior Member
    UK - english
    The second view is wrong because the statement is a list of attributes of a single person. The notion that the person being described changes during the list is poor English in my understanding - such a change of meaning would have to be brought about by some extra statements to clarifiy which of the parties was being discussed at which time.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Yes, it amusingly could be read as all those - well you can have four wives in Islam, so the husband of three reading makes sense. And if we're imagining the former spy chief to be female, then Mr Assad's sister can indeed be a former spy chief and the deputy defence minister. I'd agree it is badly written - one ambiguity can be forgiven, but two looks like carelessness. In speech, intonation would save it.
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    I initially read it as the wife being the spy chief and defense minister. I can see where it could be taken as describing "he," though. It's definitely ambiguous.
     

    lorelord

    Senior Member
    UK - english
    I dont find the NY Times ambiguous at all - except by stretching the bounds far beyond normal usage. Even the original example "or he was the husband of Assad's sister, who is described as a former spy chief and the deputy defense minister." can be taken to mean exactly the same as the NY Times quote and not as was implied later.
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    In the context of the whole article, it's clear they are talking about Shawkat ("him"); it says nothing else about his wife. But if I give you this sentence:

    I am the husband of L., the city attorney and a former insurance underwriter.

    Who is the city attorney, me or Linda? I actually think it's a serial comma problem: if this sentence had a comma after "attorney," I would most probably read it as "I" being the city attorney; without it, I think that it implies that Linda is. (She is, by the way.)
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Yes, most of us who use the Oxford/serial comma are probably seeing the other meaning first.
    Also, even though there's no grammatical support for it, I can see someone with a cultural bias assuming that Mr. Assad (not his sister - a woman! ) is a former spy and the chief defense minister.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Normally we tolerate (and indeed scarcely notice) ambiguities if they can be resolved with common sense or world knowledge; there's no need to write unambiguous sentences. We all know enough in a general way about what Bashar al-Assad's government is likely to contain, to not think that General Shawkat was married to a spy chief, nor that Assad's sister was a spy chief. So in practice we would probably have read it without difficulty. But that's what I meant by forgiving one possible wrong reading: this has two that make perfect sense apart from our knowledge of Syrian culture (they don't involve anyone being married to aircraft or kangaroos).
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    I agree, but the original post didn't contain any of that context. As I said, reading the article clears it up entirely; it's the sentence in isolation that has the ambiguity.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Coming cold to this sentence:
    "He was the husband of Mr. Assad’s only sister, a former spy chief and the deputy defense minister."
    - I understand that Mr Assad's sister was the former spy chief and deputy defense minister.

    In my reading, the structure of the first identity is too complex for normal comprehension to allow the second and third identities to refer back to "He". They can only refer to "sister".

    He was the architect who built the first cast iron bridges built over the Chumly Burn for Hubert Benevolently-Humbernaught, a serial womaniser and one-time deputy foreign minister.
    Who was the serial womaniser?

    I think that any such sentence that introduces a second person (Mr Assad) risks the subsequent identities being associated with the wrong person.
    To introduce a third person (Mr Assad's only sister) seems to me to be careless writing.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    It depends where the third person is introduced: "He was a former spy chief, the deputy defense minister and the husband of Mr. Assad’s only sister."
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It depends where the third person is introduced: "He was a former spy chief, the deputy defense minister and the husband of Mr. Assad’s only sister."
    Oh, indeed.
    It's the introduction of the second or third person before the end of the list that causes the problem.
    Your re-ordering of the original completely removes my confusion.
     

    bball909

    Member
    English -American
    I acknowledge that I did not put any of the context into the post. However, I was under the impression that the quality of the writing was not dependent on whether one had the cultural awareness to realize that a woman was not the spy chief. I thought that a grammatically ambigious sentence was ill advised, even if one had the geopolitical awareness to know that a women would likely not be a spy chief in Syria (though in Libya women did hold some security positions under the old regime).

    I just wanted to verify that the writer was in fact ambigious and was curious to see how better to write the sentence, which I learned from the thread.
     
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