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Here is a sentence that I wrote for an academic paper:

... the provision of longer benefit durations in regions of high unemployment creates long-term EI dependency among seasonal workers, which then results in persistent high levels of unemployment in those regions.

Question: Which phrasing is the most idiomatic (correct usage)? My research tells me I should go with C (but my research is based on the graph, google hits, and reading some of the lines on those hits). However, google hits for all three options are similar in number: around 130.

  • A. persistent levels of unemployment
  • B. persistent high levels of unemployment
  • C. persistently high levels of unemployment

Details:

Let's start with the definition: according to Cambridge, "persistent" (adj) means

lasting for a long time or difficult to get rid of

The intended meaning is that unemployment in those regions stay up high year after year, as seasonal workers don't relocate to other regions for new jobs. They prefer being unemployed in the high-unemployment regions so they can get unemployment benefits for longer durations (benefit durations are shorter in low unemployment regions).

My original phrasing was option A, "persistent levels of unemployment", which turned out to be very unpopular/uncommon. "Level" is like a scale ranging from low to high. I wonder if that is the problem: "persistent" and "level" does not work together.

In google news, there are only

  • A. 4 entries for persistent levels of unemployment

  • B. 11 entries for persistent high levels of unemployment

  • C. 24 entries for persistently high levels of unemployment

Simply looking up google all reveals around 130 entries for all of the above options (google returns around 10,300 entries, but if you click page 15 or so, you will see google revises its estimate to around 130 entries). Provided is an ngram for comparison. One term that is way up higher than all three is just "persistent unemployment" (not in image). I wonder why the green (A) and the red (B) line cross like that.

enter image description here

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  • Because levels of unemployment started to be persistently high from the ‘70s with the first oil crisis around the world.
    – user 66974
    Sep 22, 2019 at 5:04
  • To me, "persistent high levels" sounds more like a distinct phenomenon that's different from the times when there are lower levels of unemployment, while "persistently high levels" is just a description of the unemployment rate. Similarly "frequent high temperatures" implies there's something about high temperatures, either good or bad, that you want to talk about, while "frequently high temperatures" is just a description of climate. But I don't think there's necessarily much of a difference.
    – Stuart F
    May 17, 2021 at 18:22
  • 'Modifiers of adjectives' (traditionally, adverbs) usually take the -ly form, like central adverbs. He annoyed her persistently //// The employment levels were persistently / consistently / usually / worryingly ... high. The alternative reading, that the high levels persisted / were persistent, is admittedly available, but I'd not choose it. May 17, 2021 at 18:22
  • related - forum.wordreference.com/threads/…
    – Phil Sweet
    May 18, 2021 at 0:37

3 Answers 3

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Persistent can be employed adjectivally or adverbially.

Used as an adjective, qualifying a noun it would not take the ...ly suffix. She is suffering from a persistent cough.

Where it qualifies a verb, or an adjective, its adverbial form with the ...ly suffix is employed. He persistently argued the point or The restaurant provided persistently good food. Or, our example, The country endured persistently high levels of unemployment.

But where we speak of persistent levels of high unemployment - persistent no longer qualifies high, but the nounal phrase levels of high unemployment. So it takes its adjectival form, without the ...ly suffix.

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When one sees high levels, there is an automatic presumption of alternative bins that include low levels and medium levels, which together form a set. Bin labels become constituent nouns, and can take adjectives as modifiers.

In the case of persistent and persistently, they don't perfectly map the same semantics. Persistent has a considerably broader range of senses than does persistently, and here the adverb feels awkward. The meaning of stubbornly resisting attempts to remediate isn't really covered by the adverb, but is a common use of the adjective.

So I parse the phrase as [persistent [high levels]][of unemployment].

Note that persistent levels of high unemployment isn't quite the same in that it doesn't create the set of high/medium/low levels the way persistent high levels does.

Don't ignore any persistent "funny noises" as they can be the precursor of trouble. (jaguarforums.com)[https://www.jaguarforums.com/forum/xj-xj6-xj8-xjr-x350-x358-28/recommended-maintenance-schedule-04-xjr-42567/)

Residents of the city complained of a persistent “funny smell” after the incident. https://ecology.iww.org/node/965

Gender, Pulmonary Morbidity and Persistent High Concentrations of Weak Fetal Androgens in Preterm Infants (Nature.com)[https://www.nature.com/articles/pr2005423]

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I'd say persistent, as it is a characteristic of unemployment. Persistently, to my ear, sounds like an action taken by unemployment.

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