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Jim's cousin, an olympic athlete, who lives in Boston did X.

The nonrestrictive appositive "an olympic athlete" is combined with a restrictive clause "who lives in Boston." Since the comma appears before "who" the restrictive clause may be mistaken for a nonrestrictive and descriptive "who lives in Boston." If you move "an olympic athlete" to after the restrictive clause "Boston, an olympic athlete," then it may be ambiguous too.

What could be a clear substitute while keeping these the appositive and the restrictive clause in one sentence?

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    "Olympic athlete" is not restrictive? You have Jim's cousin did X; you may also have An Olympic athlete who lives in Boston did X, so why not Jim's cousin, an Olympic athlete who lives in Boston, did X?
    – bye
    Dec 29, 2014 at 6:23
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    Assume that "an olympic athlete" is not restrictive. In your suggestion both of them get merged into a non-restrictive phrase, but that is not the question. What if you have a restrictive phrase and a nonrestrictive appositive and they have to remain restrictive and non-restrictive respectively, what would be the way to structure it?
    – Joe Black
    Dec 29, 2014 at 6:29
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    Are you trying to distinguish between the situation where Jim has two cousins who live in Boston, only one of whom is an Olympic athlete, and the situation where Jim has exactly one cousin who lives in Boston, and who happens to be an Olympic athlete? Can you think of a situation where this would matter? Does such a situation come up often enough that English needs a short way to distinguish between these two possibilities (rather than using a longer and more circuitous means of doing so)? Dec 29, 2014 at 21:01

3 Answers 3

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A restrictive clause needs to follow its governor immediately:

Jim's cousin who lives in Boston, an Olympic athlete, did X.

That's unambiguous. It's not very pretty, but that's a sign you're trying to cram more information or more structure into your sentence than it can comfortably handle.

A non-restrictive clause isn't necessary to identify the governor, but it isn't just stuck in gratuitously: it's put in because it tells the hearer something he needs to know, and how you deploy it depends on why the hearer needs to know it. It's impossible to pick an appropriate solution without knowing why you wanted to get all that information in before your predicate in the first place, or what the relation is between the supplement and the predicate, but here are a few possible rewrites:

Jim's Boston cousin, an Olympic speedskater, just married his coach.

Jim's cousin who lives in Boston wrote a book; he was an Olympic medalist, and the book's about how he parlayed that into a comfortable living as a motivational speaker.

Jim's cousin who lives in Boston was on the Olympic hockey team, and now he's been drafted by the Bruins.

You know Jim's cousin? the one who lives in Boston? he's on the Olympic hockey team, right, and he just got busted for doping.

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    To me, the first version is almost, but not quite unambiguous. Unfortunately, it almost, but not quite, unambiguously means that Boston is an Olympic athlete… Dec 29, 2014 at 15:02
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    @JanusBahsJacquet As I said, it ain't pretty; but I don't think it will bear that reading. It might be ambiguous to a hearer unfamiliar with the meanings of both Boston and live in, but to no-one else: strong semantic entailment trumps weak syntactic implicature. Dec 29, 2014 at 15:11
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    To me, intonation and sentence pattern end up trumping semantic entailment here; I have to backtrack and reinterpret to get the right meaning. Dec 29, 2014 at 15:15
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I think there's no ambiguity if it's spoken; intonation forestalls the ambiguity. There's some in writing, but it's sorta built in to the constructions OP has elected to employ. I'm not fond of appositives in the best of circumstances - I only use em for glosses and expansions - and I would never use one here, where it presumably bears some narrative burden. Dec 29, 2014 at 15:37
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    'It's not very pretty, but that's a sign you're trying to cram more information or more structure into your sentence than it can comfortably handle.' One for my book of quotes. Dec 29, 2014 at 15:45
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The longer example expresses the idea that the cousin who worked for the government is also the only relative with a job.

Constraints are that word limit is an issue so there can't be multiple sentences. In the context it is important that reader knows that the first cousin was the only relative with a job as it emphasizes the difficulty faced by Sam in becoming reasonable.

Living with a cousin who worked for the government, his only relative who had a job, and a cousin who fought against the government made Sam a reasonable person.

These are a few substitutes. Thoughts?

Living with a cousin who worked for the government (his only relative with a job) and a cousin who fought against the government made Sam a reasonable person.

Living with a cousin who worked for the government and the other who fought against the government, one of whom was his only relative with a job, made Sam a reasonable person.

Living with a cousin who worked for the government and another who fought against the government, one of whom was his only relative with a job, made Sam a reasonable person.

Living with a cousin who worked for the government and another cousin who fought against the government, one of whom was his only relative with a job, made Sam a reasonable person.

Living with a cousin who worked for the government and another who fought against the government (one of them was his only relative with a job) made Sam a reasonable person.

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    It's ambiguous. He could be living with three people, (1) a cousin who works for the government, (2) his only relative with a job — obviously, the narrator doesn't think working for the government is a real job — and (3) a cousin who is fighting against the government. Dec 29, 2014 at 21:06
  • You are right that the statement "Living with a cousin who worked for the government, his only relative who had a job, and a cousin who fought against the government made Sam a reasonable person." appears ambiguous as it makes it look like he was living with 3 parties when the statement is expected to only express that he lived with 2 cousins one of whom was the only relative with a job. I posted comments earlier in this thread that explain the issue that you are mentioning.
    – Joe Black
    Dec 29, 2014 at 21:12
  • Your first of three substitutes "Living with a cousin who worked for the government (his only relative with a job) and a cousin who fought against the government made Sam a reasonable person." seems unambiguous, grammatical, and well-punctuated. It seems we both independently arrived at the idea of using parentheses. (See also my revised answer to your original example.) Dec 30, 2014 at 18:42
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    Is this meant to be an edit of your original question?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jan 2, 2015 at 12:47
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Jim's cousin (an olympic athlete), who lives in Boston, did X.

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  • As I posted earlier that's not the question-- it makes it nonrestrictive. The question relates to the general issue when combining nonrestrictive appositive and restrictive clause. The sentence is just an example.
    – Joe Black
    Dec 29, 2014 at 8:06
  • @Joe Black: Obviously I misunderstood your question and your example. The guy is Jim's cousin, AND is an olympic athlete, AND lives in Boston. What other meaning do you hope to convey by a better-rendered version of your example? Or do you care more about what we call the sentence elements than whether the construction conveys the desired meaning? If so, I'll bow out of this one and let you and the true intellectuals debate how many nonrestrictive appositives and restrictive clauses can dance on the head of a pin. Dec 29, 2014 at 8:35
  • The fact that your example is badly punctuated does not make it ambiguous—it simply looks badly punctuated, but I tend to ignore that. Still, if you could properly punctuate it, it might be a better example. Dec 29, 2014 at 10:18
  • I hope you understand that there is a difference between the meaning expressed by the phrasing of "Jim's cousin, an olympic athlete, who lives in Boston did" and "Jim's cousin, an olympic athlete who lives in Boston, did". The former subordinates both living in Boston and being an athlete, unlike the latter which only (for lack of a better word) subordinates being an athlete. This distinction is crucial in specifying which cousin is being referred to in the latter and can't be ignored where you need the latter construction to specify the cousin based on a certain attribute.
    – Joe Black
    Dec 29, 2014 at 10:23
  • Or, to put it another way: you may wish to distinguish which subject the restrictive clause "subordinates"; however, because the appositive has already equated "Jim's cousin" with "olympic athlete", it makes no semantic difference whether the restrictive clause refers to one, the other, or both. Dec 30, 2014 at 18:33

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