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I have written the following sentence:

I had taken Course A at School A that is similar to Course B in School B, which appears to be more difficult to get through its prerequisite.

In case the sentence is not making a lot of sense because of the messy references, the idea is: I have taken Course A at School A. I find that Course A is similar to Course B, which is offered by School B. Course B has more difficult prerequisites to get through.

In the sentence, I have a few doubts on the correctness of the references that I have used.

  1. First, although I have the temptation to use "which" in the first part of the sentence as "...taken Course A at School A, which is similar to...", I wanted to avoid word repetition and used the word "that" in the sentence instead to refer to Course A at School A. Is this correct?
  2. Second, I always think that "which" refers to its nearest subject and in this case, it is referring to Course B. Is what I have said correct?
  3. Third, if the word "which" is referring to Course B, can I then assume that using the word "it" within this clause would automatically refer to what "which" refers to, in this case, Course B?
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This is a Stacked Relative Clause construction, which has several possible pitfalls and remedies. –  John Lawler Jun 21 '12 at 17:34
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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

You're right in saying that it's quite messy.

To answer your questions, first off, we try to attribute your Relative Pronouns "that" and "which" to Courses. But in fact we forget that there are other phrases between Courses and the Relative Pronouns. Namely, Prepositional Phrase ("In school A/B"). Depending on the length of these school names, they're a potential source of confusion.

You should find ways to make Courses next to the Relative Pronouns. For example: "I had taken at School A Course A which is similar to Course B offered at School B."

Next, I'd suggest considering making two sentences instead of one, for clarity.


There's also potential trouble with "more difficult to get through its prerequisite." If you're thinking: "get through its prerequisites," then your Relative Clause is broken off from the sentence. If you're thinking "get (Course B) through its prerequisite," that can be but it's still very confusing.

How about just saying: "more difficult to get because of its prerequisite" or "more difficult (impossible) to get without its prerequisite"?

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Is it right to say that if I have it as "I had taken Course A at School A, which.....", the word "which" in this case refers to School A? And if I have it as what you suggested, "I had taken at School A Course A, which is....", then the word "which" in this case refers to Course A? –  xenon Jun 21 '12 at 17:32
    
It's right and it could work. Like I said, it depends on the actual length of the school name –  Cool Elf Jun 22 '12 at 2:31
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Why not recast it as two sentences?

I had taken Course A at School A that is similar to Course B in School B. It appears to be more difficult to get through the prerequisites for Course B.

I had taken Course A at School A that is similar to Course B in School B. Course B's prerequisites appear to be more difficult to get through (or to meet).

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Thanks! I actually created this sentence as an example to demonstrate how confusing I find the word "which" sometimes is when referring to subjects. –  xenon Jun 21 '12 at 16:45
    
@xEnOn Quite! You now have two answers, neither of which uses which in a confusing way because they refer explicitly to one of the courses in order to remove ambiguity. Conclusion: to remove ambiguity it's necessary to make such an explicit reference. –  Andrew Leach Jun 21 '12 at 16:49
    
So does it mean: when a sentence has two subjects, I cannot assume that the word "which" refers to its nearest subject? –  xenon Jun 21 '12 at 16:51
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To avoid the potential confusion I would be more explicit:

I had taken Course A at School A that is similar to Course B in School B, though the prerequisite for course B appear to be more difficult.

or

I had taken Course A at School A that is similar to Course B in School B, however there were less prerequisites for course A.

Note the use of 'less' as opposed to 'easier'/ 'more difficult'. Use as you feel appropriate.

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