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I was reading an article in the latest issue of The Economist and was stumped by the opening of the last paragraph:

That leaves two reasons for passports at home. One is to enforce vaccination when infected people could harm those who have had their jabs in hospitals and care homes, for example—rather as some countries already require proof that those working with vulnerable people have no criminal record. ...

First, the ambiguous prepositional phrase "in hospitals and care homes": is it modifying "enforce", "harm", or "have had"? Backtracking the garden path led me to conclude that "enforce"/"harm" were the most reasonable.

The sentence could then be rewritten (although not as succinctly) as:

One reason is to enforce vaccination during times when, in hospitals and care homes, infected people could harm those who have had their jabs.

However, it didn't make sense to me, because how could "infected people harm those who have had their jabs" (scientific arguments about how the immunity could last for only a few months aside)? And what about those "in hospitals and care homes" who didn't get a jab? The analogy of "vulnerable people" doesn't help either.

I enjoy reading the The Economist, but sometimes sentences like these leave me frustrated. How should one interpret this?

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    Agreed. The sentence is a muddy terrain. (The author may have sensed that and decided to liven it up with a slang word “jab”). There is however a viable assumption that all nursing home residents have been vaccinated (pardon me, jabbed) by now.
    – user416741
    Mar 17, 2021 at 15:28
  • As it stands, the use of “infected” and “jab” in this manner hides the implicit assumption that receiving the jab is equivalent to not being infected. This isn’t strictly true, since the vaccine is not 100% effective. This doesn’t make the sentence wrong in the grammatical sense, but it’s semantically false (or to be polite, incomplete). Confusion is an appropriate response here.
    – user205876
    Mar 17, 2021 at 19:23

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From a strictly grammatical perspective, you could interpret "in hospitals and care homes" as modifying the phrase "who have had their jabs" and as indicating where (geographically speaking) the "those" who have received their their shots were inoculated. But I think that the author's actual intention was to link "in hospitals and care homes" directly to "those."

Logically, the point that the writer means to emphasize here seems to be the continuing vulnerability of certain people—namely those in hospitals and care homes—despite their having already received vaccines, not the continuing vulnerability of people who happened to receive their injections in a particular setting.

A clearer way to express this idea would be to revise the text as follows:

That leaves two reasons for passports at home. One is to enforce vaccination in places where an infected person could harm people who remain at risk despite their having already had their jabs—in hospitals and care homes, for example. Similar thinking has led some countries to require proof that any person working with vulnerable individuals has no criminal record. ...

This revision improves the clarity of the writing by replacing competing plural entities ("infected people" and "those who have had their jabs") with a singular endangerer ("an infected person") and the plural endangered ("people who remain at risk"). But how to say something more clearly is ultimately a copyediting issue—not, strictly speaking, a question of grammatical correctness.

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    It is something of a hash. I've heard from editors that mistakes like this can come from late-in-the-day changes, often due to print deadlines and constraints (despite its e-omnipresence, the Economist is still a print "newspaper", as it insists on referring to itself), so an addition or replacement has to be pretty the same size as the material cut, within a few words. Mar 18, 2021 at 17:53
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    @JohnLawler: Yes. I have worked as a copy editor for many years, and I can confirm that the stage of the process that we call "cuts and fills" is a challenging—albeit very satisfying—aspect of the job. But as publishing houses see their staffs shrivel, the number of independent reads that an article receives before publication—from editors, second editors, copy editors, and proofreaders—gets smaller and smaller. Consequently, the problem may not be late changes, but early poor writing that survives cursory inspection during an abbreviated vetting process. Either way, hash is hash.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 18, 2021 at 18:37

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