1

What does the relative pronoun refer to in this sentence?

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things, compared to, say, the Sony ZX-1, which I prefer.

To me, his preference isn’t clear. It can be inferred in context, but on its own, I think it is ambiguous.

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    I don't see any grounds for referential ambiguity here. I think which in this sentence is unambiguously referring to the NP it follows, the Sony ZX-1. It's a nonrestrictive relative, but they use the same coreference strategies as restrictive. From context, one can infer that the subject pronoun It is also a device of some sort, but it's at the other end of the sentence from the relative pronoun, and pronouns like it normally don't get modified by non-restrictive relative clauses, let alone get those clauses teleported to the other end of the sentence by some mysterious rule. – John Lawler May 12 '14 at 15:11
  • Thank you - I thought that a relative pronoun always refers to the item immediately preceding it, but considered the possibility of exceptions. Some folks planted the ambiguity in my mind by arguing that 'which' clearly refers to 'It'. I should've known better because they came to their conclusions based on the context, not the syntax itself. They aren't grammarians (just headphone enthusiasts) and I'm a relatively inexperienced English teacher, so I'm not much better. – Aaron May 12 '14 at 15:27
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    The supplementary relative can also refer to the previous clause as a whole (or to part of it). And so, another possibility is that the person liked that the other device is on the smoother side of things--he has a preference for that kind of (smoother) stuff. Context is important in these types of sentences. – F.E. May 12 '14 at 17:08
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    @Frank: Sorry, I have no idea of what you know, what you prefer, or how you understand coreference. Nor am I trying to convince you of anything; you're under no obligation to believe whatever it is I said that you're unconvinced of. It's your language, after all. – John Lawler Jul 27 '14 at 17:18
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    @JohnLawler At least that is unambiguous. ;) – Frank Jul 27 '14 at 17:34
1

In this sentence, the talker prefers "the Sony ZX-1".

Firstly, this sentence has a small punctuation error, which might cause some confusion. This sentence can completely change the meaning when using wrong punctuation.

One case would be like this (which is probably what you want to say):

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things compared to, say, the Sony ZX-1, which I prefer.

Note that there's no comma after "things". In this case, as there's a comma before "which" and after a noun, "which" refers to "the Sony ZX-1".

On the other hand, if the sentence was like this:

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things compared to, say, the Sony ZX-1 which I prefer.

Supposing that "it" refers to some other sort of product, "which" in this case would be referring to "it".

Hope this has been useful.

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    Actually, you kinda have it backwards. Your 2nd version uses an integrated relative clause--and so the relative modifies the Sony ZX-1. The 1st version uses a supplementary relative clause--its antecedent depends on the overall context, which can be part of or all of the preceding clause/sentence. – F.E. May 28 '14 at 17:42
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    And I wouldn't consider a comma before compared to… incorrect either. It can be there or not, its presence implying that the comparison is a bit of an afterthought and would be preceded by a small pause in speech. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 27 '14 at 16:02
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You are correct. It is ambiguous. The two options are:

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things, [...] which I prefer.

It was [...] compared to the Sony ZX-1, which I prefer.

This ambiguity is resolved by the surrounding context (the author prefers the darker/smoother side of things) but the complicated structure does not make this intuitively obvious.

The quickest fix is to use parentheses:

It was on the darker/smoother side of things (compared to, say, the Sony ZX-1), which I prefer.

This keeps the fighting parentheticals in their own punctuation blocks and completely removes the ambiguity.

  • Is that the same as my answer? I have added what the original author actually said he meant (in the edit part). – Frank Aug 8 '14 at 16:16
  • @Frank: No, this isn't saying the same as your answer. You say that OP's author prefers "it", which (semantics aside) I think is not a syntactically credible interpretation. What MrHen is saying is the author prefers "the darker/smoother side of things", which seems like a perfectly acceptable way to interpret the ambiguous phrasing. – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '14 at 16:25
  • @FumbleFingers Ah... I see what you mean, but than that's still not what the original author applied 'prefer' to. As you can see from the ETA in my answer, the original author of the quote says he preferred 'It' (the M/AK120) over the ZX-1. I don't think he worried too much about syntax or grammar when he wrote either the original quote or the follow-up explanation. – Frank Aug 8 '14 at 16:36
  • @Frank: Well, since the author specifically says "it" was probably associated with "the darker/smoother side of things", it's quite likely he would prefer "it". But that's a semantic extrapolation. Syntactically, I don't think you could reasonably infer "which" refers to "it" - if that's what the author intended, his writing leaves much to be desired. – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '14 at 16:43
  • @FumbleFingers his writing leaves much to be desired Agreed. – Frank Aug 8 '14 at 17:04
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If you treat the commas are parenthetical then your original sentence means 'It is preferred over a Sony ZX-1'.

While I don't disagree entirely with John Lawler's coreferential comment, I think that's expecting a lot of Joe Public who is much more used to using commas in the parenthetical.

Reducing the sentence, parenthetically ...

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things, compared to, say, the Sony ZX-1, which I prefer.

Get rid of the inner parenthesis

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things, compared to the Sony ZX-1, which I prefer.

Get rid of the inner parenthesis

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things which I prefer.

Add in another bit of punctuation because, well, who knows, but there is a natural pause there and ...

It was probably on the darker/smoother side of things, which I prefer.

Your sentence author prefers It.


Out of interest - You know the context; so what was It, and is it preferable to the Sony ZX-1 (in terms of darker/smoother), bearing in mind that not everyone knows (or applies) the rules that John Lawler knows.


ETA: Unlike most of these 'what did the original author really mean questions' it turns out that there is clarification from the original author.

Did he prefer the ZX-1 or It? Well I think this explains it

I prefer the M and the AK120 for preference over the ZX-1, even after the update.

You can find this at http://www.head-fi.org/t/687944/999-calyx-m-with-dxd-dsd-64gb-sd-sd-storage/2670#post_10540041

Case closed.

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