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I was wondering how to determine what an attributive clause modifies?

For example:

  1. It has been associated with neoclassical economics and with the neoclassical synthesis, which combines neoclassical methods and Keynesian approach macroeconomics.

    Does "which combines neoclassical methods and Keynesian approach macroeconomics" modify "the neoclassical synthesis"?

  2. If without the second with, i.e.,

    It has been associated with neoclassical economics and the neoclassical synthesis, which combines neoclassical methods and Keynesian approach macroeconomics.

    How can one tell if the attributive clause modifies "the neoclassical synthesis", "neoclassical economics and the neoclassical synthesis" or "It has been associated with neoclassical economics and the neoclassical synthesis"?

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Given that this question is about grammatical structure, and correct parsing thereof, would it not be possible to present example sentences of the same form, but without such a preponderance of obscure academic terminology? I'm sure many potential respondents are simply put off by the particular words involved here, even though they have little to do with the question itself. –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 22:51
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2 Answers 2

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While attributive clauses don't always modify the immediately previous noun, that is the default assumption, as the other answer says. If this reading produces nonsense, the attributive clause can be assumed to modify something else.

As written:

It has been associated with neoclassical economics and with the neoclassical synthesis, which combines neoclassical methods and Keynesian-approach macroeconomics.

the attributive clause modifies neoclassical synthesis. Removing the second with would not change this.

To make it modify neoclassical economics and the neoclassical synthesis, you need to change the verb from singular to plural. In this case, the sentence reads better without the second with:

It has been associated with neoclassical economics and the neoclassical synthesis, which combine neoclassical methods and Keynesian-approach macroeconomics.

To make an attributive clause modify "It", you need to rewrite the sentence.

This technique, which combines neoclassical methods and Keynesian-approach macroeconomics, has been associated with neoclassical economics and with the neoclassical synthesis.

(where the appropriate noun should be inserted instead of technique, which is my best guess at what "It" refers to.)

Finally, Keynesian-approach needs to be hyphenated, because it's a phrase being used as an adjective.

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I don't think you could get a blue cigarette paper between what you're saying and my own contribution. But I'm willing to try! Agreed it takes a major rewrite to make the attributive clause modify "It". Nor can it modify both the first two noun phrases without changing the verb to plural. But sticking with exactly OP's sentence, surely it could modify the fact of both the two preceding associations having been made? –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 20:52
    
@FumbleFingers: Some parallel sentences certainly could: "It has been found in both forest and prairie, which exemplifies its extraordinary adaptability." I think you have to go by context. –  Peter Shor Jul 4 '11 at 22:35
    
And if it were "which offers little shade", would you still be happy with the position of the comma? –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 22:47
    
@FumbleFingers: I don't see how you can do anything else with the comma. It's a descriptive clause, so it needs a comma. –  Peter Shor Jul 4 '11 at 23:05
    
Yeah I think you're right. In the end, with complex sentences like OP's, you either have to accept there's some scope for ambiguity that you hope will be resolved by the reader's pre-existing knowledge, or recast the sentence (brackets always seem useful to me, but I know not everyone likes them). –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 23:34
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I think normally the attributive clause (which combines...) modifies the immediately preceding term. Which in this case is the neoclassical synthesis.

Personally I believe the comma is misplaced, and that's why OP has trouble parsing the sentence. I'd have written something like...

It has been associated with neoclassical economics, and with the neoclassical synthesis (which combines neoclassical methods and Keynesian approach macroeconomics).

Note that I'm making this interpretation on the basis of normal grammar and common sense only. I don't actually know what the neoclassical synthesis actually means. If in fact it doesn't mean what I've put in brackets, the alternative interpretation is that it's those two associations (neoclassical economics and the neoclassical synthesis) which do the combining. In which case the attributive clause modifies the entirety of the preceding text (and the comma is correctly positioned).

I'll also just point out that by strict grammatical rules I think only that second interpretation is valid. It's just that I'm sceptical as to whether it makes sense - which is why I've assumed the comma is misplaced, so I can have a different reading which seems meaningful to me. Anyone who knows what on earth the neoclassical synthesis means in economic theory may wish to correct me on that point.

LATER: It's easier to analyse the sentence structure without these abstruse technical terms. So let's replace them with two sets of simpler words...

It's associated with chalk and cheese, which combines milk and bacteria.

It's associated with chalk and cheese, which combines mining and farming.

Having just gone to the trouble of looking up the neoclassical synthesis, I believe the term does match the bracketed definition in my earlier suggested alternative. Therefore it corresponds to the first of my 'simplified' versions above, which I would recast as...

It's associated with chalk, and cheese (which combines milk and bacteria).

...although in this simplified version the comma may be considered unnecessary because the reader doesn't really need to 'pause for breath', and the correct reading is probably obvious anyway.

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Why can't the attributive clause be non-restrictive relative clauses that are set off with commas? –  Tim Jul 4 '11 at 18:04
    
@Tim: No reason. But in this case there is no scope for adding a second comma anywhere after the first one, to delineate some lesser part of the sentence as an attributive clause. The only question is what that clause applies to, not where it ends. –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 18:20
    
Thanks! Do you think it will make difference with and without the second with, as asked in my part 2? –  Tim Jul 4 '11 at 19:03
    
@Tim: No, I don't think the presence or absence of the second with makes any difference. I see @Peter Shor has just weighed in, so most likely I'll end up withdrawing in favour of his (invariably well-considered) contribution, but I might in the meantime make an attempt to simplify the structure we're looking at so it's easier to see what's going on. –  FumbleFingers Jul 4 '11 at 20:15
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