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I'm a ESOL teacher, and I'm having trouble answering a question that a student asked me recently. We were going over long sentences, and found this one from the New York Times:

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict.

It's clear to me, as a native speaker, that the clause "that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict" applies to the noun phrase "a nearly month-old bombing campaign" and not the noun phrase "a rebel group in neighboring Yemen," but I can't exactly explain why. I think I know this mostly from the context, but it wouldn't necessarily be obvious to someone learning English.

It would be possible to write this sentence with a clause modifying " a rebel group in neighboring Yemen." Something like, "Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen, which has been opposing Saudi influence for nearly three years."

Is it just the comma that makes it clear that one clause applies to the rebel groups, and the lack of comma that shows the clause applies to the bombing campaign?

Any help would be much appreciated! Thank you,

Lee

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    All a comma at that point can do is mark a clause or phrase as non-restrictive. A pair of commas around against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen would do the trick; but it would also mark that phrase as non-restrictive, which the Times appears to resist. And that's the real problem: the Times is trying to cram too much information into the sentence and refusing to treat some parts as more important than others. That compels the reader to do the writer's job and sort out the relationships by inference from context. – StoneyB Jun 21 '15 at 13:44
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    This is what's called an "attachment ambiguity". It happens because English is a right-branching language that systematically puts its largest constituents at the end of the sentence, where they are easier to parse. This has the effect of making it unclear which of the preceding constituents they might modify. This can be fixed by using shorter sentences with fewer clauses, and not trying to jam all the necessary information into one sentence. – John Lawler Jun 21 '15 at 14:13
  • The wrong reading could start a ... oh ... er ... – Edwin Ashworth Jun 21 '15 at 14:49
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We need to look at the context of the article. If this sentence stands alone, which it does in this post, then we really have no way of knowing which noun phrase the clause "that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict" refers to. I would assume it refers to Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign, but it could just as well refer to the rebel group, and I wouldn't blame your students or anyone else, native English speaker or not, who assumes otherwise.

Reading the original article, it is clearer that the clause in question refers to the bombing campaign. The sentence "The bombing campaign, which has received logistical and intelligence support from the United States, has drawn intense criticism for causing civilian deaths and for appearing to be detached from a broad military strategy" implies that the bombing campaign is the thing causing "a devastating humanitarian crisis" and "ignit[ing] a broader regional conflict", not the rebel group.

Therefore, my answer: Don't take anything out of context. In the age of sound bites and snippets, anything and everything can and will be misconstrued, including the clause in question.

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In the general case, there's some ambiguity.

To resolve it, think about the capabilities of each candidate noun to be modified by the phrase. For example, is it a rebel group "that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict," or a bombing campaign that is more likely capable of "touching off a devastating humanitarian crisis...?"

Especially outside certain contexts (e.g. certain sports) and in others (e.g. geopolitics) the subject of the verb "[has] touch[ed] off" (esp. a devastating humanitarian crisis) is usually an event or a happening, not a group. You've learned this as a native speaker but the student has not.

Absent the words "touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and" (so "threatened" is the first verb), and even you as a native speaker might associate the verb "threatened" more strongly with the rebel group than the bombing campaign, especially if you think the rebel group has the capabilities and/or motive to issue and/or carry through on such a threat.

You may also want to check out the ELL community for English language learning Q&A.

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I would explain it in terms of parallelism, and warn my students that in English the relevant parallel structure isn't always visible. The sentence

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict.

can be understood as saying something even more long-winded:

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign [that it had been conducting] against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen [and] that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict.

With the additional (and—in my opinion—implied) words in place, we can see two parallel branches coming off the word "campaign":

  • [that it had been conducting] against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen

  • that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict.

The proof that these phrases are in parallel is that you can produce a complete, coherent, and factually accurate sentence by including either branch in the sentence without the other:

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign that it had been conducting against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen.

and

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict.

By the way, your suggested alternative sentence,

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen, which has been opposing Saudi influence for nearly three years.

has an associative ambiguity of it own—namely, whether the "which" attaches to "Yemen" or to "[rebel] groups [in Yemen]." From context (and familiarity with patterns of English usage), we can surmise that "groups" is the referent for "which," but I imagine that an English language learner would not find the reasons for our making that connection particularly easy to follow.

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