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In the following expression, whom does 'who' refer to? The friends of the participants or the participants themselves?

"The friends of the participants who were told to order soft drinks"

This was an option in a multiple choice question and I suggested that it was ambiguous, yet the professor insisted that it clearly referred to the friends of the participants.

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    Is the remainder of the sentence available? Does the context make the answer obvious? If not, I agree that there is some ambiguity here. – George Cummins Mar 17 '14 at 17:17
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    This is a classic attachment ambiguity; very common in writing, but mostly absent in speech, because the intonation disambiguates. – John Lawler Mar 17 '14 at 17:37
  • I deliberately did not provide context, because it only makes it more confusing. We were asked to distinguish the control group from the experimental group. – user69143 Mar 17 '14 at 17:52
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    Grammar-wise, the OP's example sentence is ambiguous (when there is no surrounding context). If you need grammar references to support your case, let us know. – F.E. Mar 17 '14 at 19:50
  • References would be great. I have actually been looking for some, couldn't find any credible ones. – user69143 Mar 19 '14 at 8:42
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If I were writing this, and my intention was to convey the idea that the participants' friends were told to order drinks, I would write:

"The friends of the participants, who were told to order soft drinks"

However, if my intention was to convey the idea that the participants were the ones who were told to order drinks, I would write:

"The friends of the participants who were told to order soft drinks"

It is still rather ambiguous in print. To avoid this, I might split it into two along the lines of:

"Participants were told to order soft drinks. Their friends ..."

or bring the subject and verb closer together, as in:

The participants' friends were told to order soft drinks

  • Often the best way to handle such dubious constructions is just to rewrite them and remove all doubt about what you mean in the given case. – Oldcat Mar 17 '14 at 21:19
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It is ambiguous as it stands. If you wanted to make it clear that it was the participants and not their friends who were told... you could write:

'The friends of those participants who were told to order soft drinks...'

And if it was the friends:

'Those friends of participants who were told to order soft drinks...'

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