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We review recurrent neural networks in computer science, a simple class of learning algorithms that permit feedback between the different nodes in the network.

I have two questions:

  1. Is the modifier at the end ambiguous? Does it describe the recurrent neural networks or does it describe computer science?

  2. Should modifiers like the one in the above sentence include repetition, so that it clues the reader into the fact it is a modifier (and not, for instance, a list of more things that to be reviewed) that will be following the comma? For example: "We review recurrent neural networks in computer science, a simple class of neural networks that permit feedback between the different nodes in the network."

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    If that is your writing, break it into two sentences. If it's someone else's, good luck.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 22:41
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    Why does this sentence need to include "in computer science" in the first place? Isn't that rather obvious from context? And if you remove it, you have no problem with modifiers. Commented May 19, 2016 at 0:21

3 Answers 3

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The simplest fix is to turn that comma into an em dash. The latter half of the sentence defines the term used in the first part.

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    Wouldn't that involve the same ambiguity?
    – Hungry
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 0:23
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There's an underlying ambiguity in "we review recurrent neural networks in computer science" that matters here.

If "in computer science" is an adverbial phrase modifying "review" (and so the sentence could be rewritten as "In computer science, we review recurrent neural networks..."), "a simple class of learning algorithms..." can only describe "computer science."

If "in computer science" is an adjective phrase that modifies "recurrent neural networks," (and so is part of the noun phrase), "a simple class of learning algorithms..." can describe "recurrent neural networks in computer science."

But that reading might run into trouble too. What we want to say is basically:

In computer science, recurrent neural networks are a simple class of learning algorithms that permit feedback between the different nodes in the network.

But here "in computer science" is an adverbial phrase: it tells us where recurrent neural networks are defined this way. But in our sentence, "in computer science" is stuck in the noun phrase: it's describing the recurrent neural networks.

It's not clear to me that the noun phrase "recurrent neural networks in computer science" can get the meaning we want here. Hopefully someone else will chime in.

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  • Moving "in computer science" to the beginning of the question makes it sound like the subject of computer science consist of reviewing neural networks. Like "In computer science, we study algorithms." Commented May 19, 2016 at 0:24
  • @PeterShor Yeah, that's what it would mean if it was an adverbial phrase.
    – Hungry
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 0:27
  • @Hungry If "in computer science" were completely deleted from the sentence, would the sentence be clear and correct? If yes, then it would seem that my second concern (about the comma indicating a list) is not an issue.
    – syhpphys
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 1:33
  • @syhpphys The comma could indicate a list, and you could avoid that by replacing the comma with an em dash as others have suggested. I don't think the version with the comma is unclear, though—getting rid of "in computer science," resolves a lot of the unwieldiness.
    – Hungry
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 23:38
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100% correct. If it was to modify computer science, an em dash would have been used instead. An em dash is usually used to add information right at the point when it is needed, while a subordinate clause comma usually waits for all the modifications of the word the extra information is added to to take place.

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