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It is a highly unusual form of melody, one that occurs only in this composer's work

In the above sentence, what is the referent of the pronoun one? Is it melody or the entire prepositional phrase form of melody? Or, perhaps the referent is the subject of the sentence, it? I frequently hear the rule that the referent has to be the prior proximate noun.

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You're misunderstanding/misquoting that "rule" about "prior proximate noun". In this case, as Barrie says, "one" references the whole noun phrase preceding - which has already been equated to "it" anyway. So semantically speaking it's splitting hairs to choose between "it" and "a highly unusual form of melody", but if you want to be grammatically precise it's the latter. – FumbleFingers Jul 3 '12 at 20:55
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I would say that the referent was the entire noun phrase a highly unusual form of melody. The head word is form and it is postmodified by of melody. A paraphrase would be a highly unusual melodic form.

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