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Background: I was working on a project and was having a colleague of mine proof-read a piece of documentation. He said that one sentence was ambiguous because he couldn't determine what the antecedent was (actually he knew because of the context, but said that to somebody else it might be ambiguous).

Sentence:

The server picks up the emitted fax via ModuleA, which forwards it to ModuleB.

To me it's clear that the which of the sentence refers to ModuleA, but apparently other people may be confused as to whether it's the server or ModuleA that does the forwarding. In my experience I've always made the assumption that the noun that's closer is the implied antecedent, but I couldn't find any rules to follow in determining the antecedent to use.

Question: Are there rules that unambiguously determine what antecedent is referred to by a pronoun without having any contextual information?

  • It is ambiguous. I also read that the server will forward it after getting it from moduleA. The server's ModuleA will pick up the emitted fax and forward it to ModuleB reads better – mplungjan Sep 19 '13 at 13:51
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    @mplungjan Surely not. If that's what the sentence meant it would not employ a relative but a conjunction: 'and forwards it'. – StoneyB Sep 19 '13 at 13:53
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    If the server were the antecedent, why would the sentence use which? -- that makes for a poor structure I feel. As for the rules, I always thought the most recent one is the one referred to. That too supports the inference that it is Module A that is referred to. – Kris Sep 19 '13 at 13:54
  • I don;t feel it's ambiguous, for the reasons already commented, but also because of the symmetry between ModuleA and ModuleB - theres a more logical flow from ModA to ModB, than from Server to ModB in the presence of ModA. – Chris H Sep 19 '13 at 15:00
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Grammatically, this is not a problem, because nonrestrictive relative clauses like

which forwards it to ModuleB.

modify the NP they precede, and thus which, the coreferential relative pronoun subject of forwards, must refer to ModuleA, which immediately precedes it. Couldn't be much clearer.

However, this is not a grammatical problem, but a potential reading problem,
and that's caused by being confusing, not by being ungrammatical.

The server picks up the emitted fax via ModuleA, which forwards it to ModuleB.
Consider how someone who doesn't know exactly what you (the author) do
understands this sentence when they read it.

There is an arbitrarily-named (Server) non-human actor widget involved in some action of picking up via and/or emitting and/or passing (the distinction isn't clear here, though no doubt it's clear in context) some arbitrarily-named information thingie (Fax) to or via (which means through; hmmm) some other arbitrarily-named (ModuleA) non-human actor widget, maybe with some third arbitrarily-named (ModuleB) non-human actor widget standing around with something to do, like catch passed faxes.

(If you've noticed all the players, that is, and if you can imagine them on set with a script, and if you haven't confused this arbitrarily-named non-human actor widget with one of the other arbitrarily-named non-human actor widgets, maybe the first or the second.)

You see how confusing it can be, and how much you're asking of the reader.
That's the result of two things:

  • the implicit A follows B temporally structure of the sentence,
    which is not obvious and needs reinforcement, like adding then after which
    The server picks up the emitted fax via ModuleA, which then forwards it to ModuleB.

and

  • using via to mark ModuleA, which makes it unclear whether ModuleA is
    1. just a part of Server;
      i.e, a tool,
      or
    2. a different kind of thingie that can do things;
      i.e, an actor.

Executive summary: Readers may discount obvious grammatical relation, if they're unclear on the status of the items involved. This is especially true for metaphoric descriptions, and all computer terms are metaphoric.

  • You make a good point; it's unambiguous to me because I know that the server is made up of a collection of modules, i.e. the server does no real work, it's just an abstract term for a system of modules which follow certain rules. If I were to replace the words "server", "ModuleA", and "ModuleB" with arbitrary names then I could definitely see how confusion may arise. To answer the question though, do you know of any rules that are used in order to determine the correct antecedent, or is context generally the only way to determine what the correct antecedent is? – riqitang Sep 19 '13 at 19:06
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    I rather thought that was the case, but then I'm not your intended audience. There's a vast amount of framing going on everywhere, and not everybody is up to speed on everything you are. If they were, they'd be competing with you instead of buying from you, after all. – John Lawler Sep 19 '13 at 19:12
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    As for a rule, I'd just change the sentence to clarify the relative status of the pieces. Like, Inside the server, ModuleA picks up the fax that's been emitted, [NB: reference to previous emission action -- which had better be there in context] and then forwards it to ModuleB. That seems to cover all the possibilities. Why use subordinate clauses when coordinates will do the job? – John Lawler Sep 19 '13 at 19:15
  • Your sentence as a stand-alone sentence is better sounding, but in the context of the documentation I'm writing it wouldn't fit very well. – riqitang Sep 19 '13 at 19:18
  • That's why extra context is always useful. The rest is up to you, of course. – John Lawler Sep 19 '13 at 19:24
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This Grammar Girl article gives some good advice about making clear antecedents. It addresses pronouns, but the same general advice applies to relative clauses as well.

The example you cite seems unambiguous to me for several reasons:

1) The relative clause is directly after Module A, making that an obvious choice for the antecedent.

2) The comma use suggests a restrictive clause, which would naturally fit right after the antecedent - again making Module A the obvious choice.

3) If the server was doing the forwarding, a more logical sentence construction would be:

The server picks up the emitted fax via ModuleA and forwards it to ModuleB.

or

The server, which forwards the emitted fax to Module B, picks it up from ModuleA.

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    +1 but in writing documentation of this kind I would keep the sentence sequential, unlike your 2nd example - so I would choose the first example or something like The server picks up the fax via Module A before forwarding it to Module B. – Chris H Sep 19 '13 at 14:58
  • Thanks, and your line of reasoning was exactly mine, which is why I couldn't understand how anybody could think I was talking about the server as the antecedent. The article didn't exactly shed any light on the topic other than basically saying "know your audience", though I did find this sentence to be amusing: "They’re trying to remember which nouns have already been mentioned so that they can correctly match them up with later-appearing pronouns. Don’t turn your readers into a circus act." Talk about possible pronoun confusion for some readers :P – riqitang Sep 19 '13 at 15:01
  • @Chris H, your sentence to me makes it sound like the server is the one doing the forwarding, which it isn't, it's ModuleA that does the forwarding – riqitang Sep 19 '13 at 15:02
  • @Sean, I was picking up on Lynn's answer, point 3 - maybe I didn't make that clear. – Chris H Sep 19 '13 at 15:20

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