My question is something to do with non-defining relative clauses..

One online friend of Breck's claimed the teenager had been groomed by Daynes, who he described as a 'control freak'

So is the non-defining part of the sentence about Breck or Daynes? Is Breck described as a control freak or Daynes..

If the relative clause defines Daynes, how can we rewrite the same relative clause but this time implying Breck is described as a freak

  • 2
    Daynes is the control freak, and what follows that name is a non-defining relative clause adding further information about Daynes. (Formal register would require that the relative pronoun be whom.) And the re-write would be "One online friend of Breck's (who described Breck as a 'control freak') claimed the teenager had been groomed by Daynes." One could substitute an objective personal pronoun, him or her, for the second instance of Breck's name if one knew Breck's sex. Nov 25, 2014 at 17:24
  • @BrianDonovan thank you for your quick answer.Do you think the sentence is perfectly grammatical and explicit ? even no little vague ?
    – Mrt
    Nov 25, 2014 at 17:29
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    One way to achieve the effect of indicating Breck is the control freak is to defer the introduction of Daynes: "One online friend of Breck's claimed he was a control freak, and had been groomed by Daynes". We could do the same thing while maintaining the original clause order, at the cost of a slight increase in complexity: "One online friend of Daynes claimed he had been groomed by Daynes and was a control freak".
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 25, 2014 at 17:30
  • @Murat, The original sentence, as it stands, is both grammatical and unambiguous.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 25, 2014 at 17:30
  • @DanBron: The original sentence introduces four distinct persons--Breck, Breck's online friend, Daynes, and a teenager. It was confusing enough for you yourself to drop the last of these completely in your rewrite. It may have been technically correct and unambiguous but that does not mean it was not needlessly confusing. Writers are generally well advised to craft their sentences to be as foolproof as possible. Nov 25, 2014 at 17:34

2 Answers 2


Binding Theory blocks any interpretation of this sentence except that in which "he" refers to "One online friend...". Neither Breck nor Daynes can be the antecedent of "he" because they are too deeply embedded and fail to c-command "he". On the other hand, non-restrictive relative clauses, contrary to restrictive ones, cannot be iterated and so must be adjacent to the nominal they add information about, i.e., the antecedent of "who" must be Daynes here, and it is Daynes that is described as a 'control freak'.

You can get the alternative interpretation you want (i.e., the 'control freak' is Breck) simply by placing a restrictive relative clause directly after "Breck", as follows: "An online friend of Breck's who described him as a 'control freak' claimed that the teenager had been groomed by Daynes."

The sentence is a bit strange because that adverse characterization of Breck seems a bit difficult to relate to what the sentence seems to intend to say, i.e., something about Daynes and the teenager (= that it was Daynes that groomed the teenager), not anything about Breck's character, but, grammatically speaking, in that restrictive relative clause "who" must refer to the referent of "An online friend of Breck's" and "him" cannot refer to Breck's friend and must refer either to Breck himself or to a third individual identifiable in the co(n)text. Since no co-text or extralinguistic context is provided here, just your sentence in isolation, by default "him" will be interpreted as referring to Breck, as you wanted.

This, by the way, also follows from Binding Theory and from the syntax of noun phrases: since "who" c-commands "him", by Principle B it cannot be its antecedent, they cannot refer to the same individual. On the other hand, since "of Breck's" is a relational argument (a complement) of "friend", it must be attached to "friend" as a sister, and lower than the restrictive relative clause, which is a modifier (an adjunct), not a complement. As a consequence, "Breck", buried inside a PP complement of "friend" does not 'c-command', and cannot be the antecedent of, "who", which is structurally higher. Since only the projection of "friend" is a sister to the restrictive relative clause, only " online friend of Breck's" can function as the antecedent of the relative pronominal "who" and so it is Breck's friend that describes Breck as a 'control freak', as you demanded.


The original is quite ambiguous. It is clear rhat Daynes was described as a control freak, but who is the "he" who had described Daynes as such? The teenager? Breck's friend? Or maybe Breck himself? Most likely, the friend, but why not make it clear? ("...whom the friend described....)

Many of the rewrites evince a confusion as to this point, in that many of them completely mangle the sense of fhe sentence (or, to put it kindly, they interpret it in various ways) thus proving that the original is ambiguous.
First rule of writing: don't make the reader have to think!

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