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If you have two objects which are plural (e.g. apples and oranges) and a non-restrictive relative clause, to which does the relative clause refer? E.g.:

He noticed the apples and oranges, which were rotting, in the room next door.

Are the apples rotting? The oranges? Both? Is this statement clear or ambiguous?

If you tried to restrict the relative clause only to "oranges":

He noticed the apples and oranges (that were browning) in the room next door.

Is that not an improper "that," since it is non-essential? Does it still appear ambiguous? What is the proper protocol on this?

  • It's ambiguous. I'd say the latter example is very awkward, both because which would be expected, but even more so because oranges don't brown when they lie out for too long, so the clause is clearly meant to apply to only the apples and should thus not be placed right after the oranges. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 16 '14 at 7:02
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Oranges may not brown, but they can develop a grey-green dusty type of mold within weeks. – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '14 at 11:04
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To me, "the apples and oranges, [which / that] were rotting" can only be applied to both fruits as the lack of a separate determiner causes me to parse it as the (apples and oranges).

By adding an extra determiner, the situation changes, and in most cases, the clause would be applied just to the latter: (the apples) and (the oranges) and the clause would only apply to the oranges.

Consider another example:

"The boys and girls [who/that] were playing in the yard came in for a snack."

I would find it very hard to imagine anyone would interpreting this as only the girls having been playing in the yard. Add another determiner though, and watch how it changes:

"The boys and [the/those/many] girls [who/that] were playing in the yard came in for a snack."

Now all the boys are snacking, but the only girls snacking were the ones out in the yard.

  • 1
    Downvoter want to explain their issue with the answer? – guifa Aug 20 '14 at 22:31
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The conjunction indicates the he noticed both apples and oranges. Presumably, since they were in the other room, he did not see them and must have had a terrific sense of smell

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He noticed the apples and oranges, which were rotting, in the room next door.

This is not very ambiguous and means that both the apples and the oranges were rotting. If you wanted to single out the oranges you could say something like:

He noticed the apples and oranges, the latter of which were rotting, in the room next door.

This feels awkward but it lets the reader know only the oranges were rotting. If you had more leeway:

He noticed the apples and the rotting oranges in the room next door.

This isn't as "flowery" but it flows well enough and the meaning is quite clear.

  • Clearly... the sentences do not make sense. How can someone notice things if they are in a different room?! – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '14 at 8:16
  • @Mari-LouA: For instance, by smell or through an open door or window. – MrHen Aug 28 '14 at 9:59

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