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His governors, some of them incompetent and tactless, quarrelled bitterly with the people, who were constantly demanding greater political control.

In this sentence, who are demanding greater political control, the governors or the people? And if it's the people who are demanding greater political control, does that mean they want to be governed in a more efficient way or does it mean they want their own political power?

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This is known as an Attachment Ambiguity. The final clause could modify either of the NPs that come before it, as you point out. The speaker or writer may have intended either reading, and the right-branching structure of English makes the ambiguity unavoidable without rephrasing. –  John Lawler Sep 16 '12 at 18:25
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Perhaps it's just me, but I fail to see how the sentence is ambiguous at all. Who can only refer to people, give or take any amount of commas. If it were the governors who were demanding, the who would be an and. It strikes me as nonsensical and even ungrammatical to interpret governors as the antedecent of who. –  RegDwigнt Sep 16 '12 at 18:39

2 Answers 2

It's "the people" who are demanding greater political control, and that's probably why the governors were quarreling with them.

There's no ambiguity here. The word "who" can't attach to the "governors" at the beginning of the sentence, because the verb in this sentence is "quarreled". The appositive clause in the predicate has to apply to the noun in the predicate, just as the appositive in the subject has to apply to the noun in the subject.

A form of this sentence that would have the governors demanding greater political control would have to read "His governors, some of them incompetent and tactless, were constantly demanding greater political control, and therefore quarreled bitterly with the people." (Note the lack of the word "who" in this sentence.)

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His governors, some of them incompetent and tactless, quarrelled bitterly with the people, who were constantly demanding greater political control.

To answer your first question, who goes with the people. I have to agree with ЯegDwight’s comment that there would be an and instead of who if it were to refer to governors.

To answer your second question, “[. . .] the people [. . .] were constantly demanding greater political control” would leave the reader to believe that the people wanted more control in the political aspect.

(I’d like to note, that yes, I did edit the second half of the sentence, but it was to make the understanding a bit more clear.)

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