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Is the 'which' in

Proposition 25 suggests a better definition of m-reducibility than given in Definition 23, which is also the one typically given in texts

ambiguous? It is a line from an article I've written, and the anonymous referee claims that

the reader has to guess to which of the two definitions the "which" at the beginning of the line refers.

It seems to me, however, that the which should refer to the definition immediately preceding it, since if I'd wanted it to refer to the other, I'd have written something like

Proposition 25 suggests a better definition of m-reducibility, which is also the one typically given in texts, than given in Definition 23.

As the title indicates, this is essentially a question about whether 'which' by default refers to the noun closest to it.

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I'm not too familiar with the tags on this site. I tried to find the most appropriate ones, but re-tagging would be most appreciated. –  Quinn Culver Jun 14 '13 at 21:16
It does not. And it's not which that decides it. You're asking about what noun phrase a relative clause modifies. Normally it's the one immediately before it. But this leads to attachment ambiguities. –  John Lawler Jun 14 '13 at 21:24
@JohnLawler Okay thanks. In the example I provided, do you agree with the referee? –  Quinn Culver Jun 14 '13 at 21:28
@Quinn: Your referee is at best nit-picking, but realistically I'd say he's just plain wrong. The general principle is as John says, and your example isn't a situation where one could make a credible case for overriding it. –  FumbleFingers Jun 14 '13 at 22:25
@QuinnCulver: Yes, I agree with the referee. For a scientific or math journal, ambiguity in presentation is taboo. It may not make a whole lot of difference, but confusing a reader for any reason detracts from the attention you want them to pay to the arguments in the paper. If you confuse them about irrelevancies, they'll never get to the arguments; or if they do, they won't trust your presentation as much. –  John Lawler Jun 14 '13 at 22:58

2 Answers 2

It technically is ambiguous, even though I think most people would read it as intended, I suppose the fact is that you could have meant something different and someone could have interpreted differently, means it really is ambiguous.

Would it not remove ambiguity to simply remove ", which" and replace with "and":

"Proposition 25 suggests a better definition of m-reducibility than given in Definition 23 and is also the one typically given in texts".

That removes the ambiguity for me at least!

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It seems adding the "and" gives the opposite meaning I intended. It is Definition 23 that is typically given in texts, not Proposition 25. So I guess it must indeed be quite ambiguous! –  Quinn Culver Jun 20 '13 at 17:27

I'm not happy about

Proposition 25 suggests a better definition of m-reducibility than given in Definition 23

itself, preferring a that or an is before given.

I feel this should be changed before deciding on which noun is being modified.

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Yes, I considered that too. But does that have any bearing on the ambiguity of the 'which'? –  Quinn Culver Jun 15 '13 at 17:07
Yes - the missing pronoun is one of the candidates! Though the rephrasing should probably be 'than that given as Definition 23'. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 15 '13 at 18:03

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