Struggles explaining English

OK, this came up at work today. I got called out for a grammar mistake that I’m sure isn’t a mistake, but I struggled to explain why.

The sentence was:

“The present disclosure relates to [things*] that hold [a thing**] on [a thing***], and [things****] provided with such [things*].”

(Apologies for the probably utterly pointless censoring)

The complaint was that it reads as if a plurality of things* are holding a thing**, when that is not necessarily the case. I was told to either insert “each” between that and hold, or to make the whole thing singular, or otherwise fix it.

My defence was that we aren’t talking about a thing*, we are talking about the class of things*, which can indeed each hold a thing** (it’s also fine for multiple things* to hold one thing**).

You can see this kind of grammar in typical use when you write about, say, “people who drive a car to work”. We aren’t talking about “a person” (which person, why should we care about them?) or “people who each drive a car to work” (can read like a specific car is shared by several people) or even “people who drive cars to work” (OK, I guess, but can also read like we’re talking about people who each drive multiple cars).

I think I finally managed (after the awkward meeting), to convince the boss that I wasn’t flat-out wrong, but I’m unhappy with how hard I found it to articulate my defence. Obviously that’s partly just my Japanese being insufficient, but perhaps someone here can help me with English grammar search terms or resources, or even point out where I am wrong, if I am?


“that hold a thing” is a subordinate clause. The use of “that” is restrictive, meaning it is describing a subclass of “thing*” based on the criterion that it “holds a thing**”.

I’m no Englishologist, but the ability to parse that particular information (as opposed to, such as you describe, the shared-by-all-things* thing**) would require knowledge of the “thing*” and “thing**” by the reader. Using the “each” is a brute-forced but simple solution.

In summary: I dunno, man. I feel like you’re right, but in the case of writing up something that may have to stand scrutiny in legal proceedings, I feel like the “each” hack isn’t terrible.


I should have notied that the important legally binding claims are all clearly written in the form of a thing* that holds a thing**, this is just introductory fluff.

Thank you for pointing out the subordinate clause though. I don’t know why I blanked on that earlier.

1 Like

It seems to me that adding “each” stops the subordinate clause from doing the job of creating a narrative flow from the general things* to the subclass of the things* that hold a thing**. Instead, it retroactively makes every one of the things* be defined by the clause, i.e., the definition of thing* is now that they hold a thing**.

Oh, and FWIW, I think the fix that I will propose, mostly just to demonstrate to everyone that the criticism was taken onboard, is making everything plural. I don’t have a problem with that, and keeping things general and vague at this point is fine here.

Let’s put some clean-room nouns into it.

“The present disclosure relates to brackets that hold a telescope on a stand, and bolts provided with such brackets.”

To me the problem is the passage from plural to singular - as written it specifically suggests that multiple brackets hold one telescope. “that each hold” is valid but clumsy; pluralising everything is clearer.

1 Like

The example is good, except that provided here is in the sense of, uh, workstations provided with such brackets? The disclosure also relates to larger things that include such brackets.

You really think it specifies that multiple brackets hold one telescope? (note that this is fine, and actually the case, it’s just not ok for that to be the only interpretation)

“The present disclosure relates to people that hold a degree in mechanical engineering from Cambridge”
“The present disclosure relates to cars that have an ejector seat that has a parachute”

(as previously noted, I am going to make everything plural, I’m now just curious as to whether the clause using a string of singular nouns is actually a problem)

Depending on the context, it could cause ambiguity. I might phrase this differently for casual conversation, but my general feeling is that if the reader stumbles and thinks “hang on, what does that mean” then the sentence isn’t doing its job. Even if they are able to work out afterwards what was being talked about.

I think that saying “As that hold a B” implies that multiple As collectively hold a B. It doesn’t make a firm statement about it. Depending on the context it might be entirely clear that it isn’t the case, but I still find it a bit awkward.

(Ah, you’re using “provided with” to mean “equipped with” rather than “supplied with”. If the thing-3 is obviously bigger and more important than thing-1 then that shouldn’t be a problem.)

I should say that I don’t have formal credentials but I am a native en_GB speaker, I’m reasonably fluent in en_US, and I care about grammar.

1 Like

“The present disclosure relates to brackets that hold a telescope on a stand, and workstations provided with such brackets.”

I think one bit of ambiguity is the verb choice: does “hold…on” mean “attach a telescope to a stand”, or “support a stand-mounted telescope”? In other words, is this [hold a telescope on [a stand]] or [hold [a telescope on a stand]]?

(Native en-GB, linguistics degree, occasional TEFL)

1 Like

If I understand:

I think I agree with Benkyo. Based on that understanding, I would parse the example thus:

This seems like perfectly serviceable English to me, and I’d leave it alone if I were editing an academic paper for a student. It is, admittedly, somewhat ambiguous.

Unfortunately, I can’t off the top of my head suggest any grammatical terms or references to defend the acceptability of this phrasing, so this may not be of much help.

(If one did add “of the kind” to the sentence, I would probably recommend changing ‘that’ to ‘which’, because I prefer it and refuse to follow—or even lesrn—that/which rules. They appear to me to be arbitrary pedantry. And so I undermine my usefulness as a witness. :wink:)

1 Like

I work in patents and that would not phase me in the slightest!

The relating to “brackets” is a fairly common linguistic quirk I think just so it’s clear that all types of brackets are covered in the claim. Bracket with modification A and Bracket with Modification B.

If that was in preamble it is given literally one second of thought.

If you want to get really fruity you could make the case that if they meant multiple brackets on a single device they would have said multiple/plurality of brackets. Additionally if the invention relates to the bracket per se then implicitly multiple instances are pointless. You wouldn’t say “a bracket which has this bell and this whistle which is really two brackets”. It’s the detail of the individual bracket that’s critical rather than it’s use in a pair on a telescope.


If knowledge of the “thing**” is common enough and it’s obvious that it would not be shared by all “things*”, I believe Benkyo is in the clear.

If it requires specialized knowledge to know that “thing**” would not be shared by all “things*”, then I think additional structure would be warranted.

1 Like

I think this is the key. @Benkyo, the language is NOT incorrect. But it is also not airtight. I have the (mis)fortune of being married to a lawyer and she is very well equipped to identify every possible way my written word could be misinterpreted (sometimes hugely helpful, sometimes…not). As well as writing things in a way that allow for no possible misunderstanding.

I get the sense that the “conversation” between you and your boss was framed in black and white, right and wrong, and it’s neither. It is grammatically correct but allows the possibility of misinterpretation. Other phrasing could reduce or eliminate that possibility. How important that rephrasing is depends entirely on the context, both the reality of the “things” and the knowledge of all potential readers.

No real downside to adding clarifying language, apart from any relational issues between you and the boss.


Yes, absolutely. This is English; trying to make it have only a single possible interpretation often leaves you with less-good English…


Thanks. It’s the “technical field” intro of the specification, not the claims, so it doesn’t really get any more preamble-y.

Clarifying language can be undesirable in this work. This particular passage has no significance for the scope of the invention, but sometimes you do need to leave room for multiple interpretations in order to avoid limiting the invention to only one possibility.

For example, in the claims that do define the scope of the invention, you’ll frequently have a top-level claim describing the invention in the broadest vaguest terms (that also won’t fall foul of including prior art), and dependent claims that describe specifics. This is easy to do in Japanese, and harder to maintain in English, such as when it comes to things like singular and plural (which you never have to make explicit in Japanese).

1 Like

Ugh, apparently the boss thinks this is something that can be read as defining the scope of the invention, and that it does have to match the wording of the claims. He’s wrong, but got very angry when I tried to explain.

Does this invalidate the last 9 years of my output? Hah. Oh well, nothing for it but to comply, and change how I write the intros going forward.

Using Roger’s example, that means I have to write:

"Technical Field
The present disclosure relates to a bracket that holds a telescope on a stand, and a workstation provided with such brackets.”

Or, in other words, under the technical field heading, I have to write nothing about the technical field, and instead write a description of the invention.

This feels so wrong. It is definitely not how it is normally done. But, it’s also not going to cause any problems, it just offends me.