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(a)  "The daughter of the colonel who had a black dress left the party."

(b)  "The daughter of the colonel who had a black mustache left the party."

(c)  "The daughter of the colonel who had a black hat left the party."

(a), (b), and (c) are grammatical, but, while (a) and (b) are understandable, I have some difficulties in understanding (c); more precisely, in (c) it is unclear, at least to me, whether the hat is the colonel's hat or the daughter's hat.

I wonder if it exists a grammar rule to decipher (c).

I searched for grammatical proximity without any useful result.

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Your assumption that the colonel couldn't have had a black dress and the daughter couldn't have had a mustache may be correct based on likelihood, but is not justified based on logic (or grammar as describe in some answers below). –  bib Aug 30 '12 at 12:33

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

You can use commas to help:

(a) "The daughter of the colonel, who had a black dress, left the party."

(b) "The daughter of the colonel who had a black mustache left the party."

So, if I saw:

(c) "The daughter of the colonel who had a black hat left the party."

I'd assume the hat belonged to the colonel, while in this case:

(c) "The daughter of the colonel, who had a black hat, left the party."

I'd assume the hat belonged to the colonel's daughter.

That all said, it's still ambiguous, and could be interpreted either way. If you want to remove all ambiguity entirely:

(c) "The daughter of the colonel, who carried her black hat, left the party."

but you can't always make a change like that to fix the problem (particularly when you're dealing with the colonel's bratty son, for instance).

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There is a further ambiguity if no context is given: is the who-clause restrictive or non-restrictive (ie are we being told that the colonel's black-hat-toting daughter rather than his other one left, are we being told how to identify which of the ladies is the colonel's daughter, or are we just being given an extra snippet of information). –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 30 '12 at 22:09

Yes, proximity is a "rule", in the sense that the reader expects any pronoun to refer to the nearest preceding noun in grammatical and semantic agreement. If following that rule results in misunderstanding or ambiguity it's the writer's fault, not the reader's.

On the other hand, one rarely encounters such sentences as these in isolation. If it had been previously mentioned that there were multiple colonels present, of whom only one wore a black hat --or multiple daughters, of whom only one wore a black hat-- the ambiguity would be greatly diminished, and the writer's fault would be mitigated. (Note, however, that in either of these cases the commas would be out of place, since the relative clause would be restrictive.)

You are quite right to be puzzled.

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