4

When who is an antecedent, does it need to directly touch the person it's referring to?

For example:

I called Sally, who urged me to move in with her in Texas.

OR

I called Sally, the mother of Selena Gomez, who urged me to move in with her in Texas.

  1. In the second case, is the who incorrectly referring back to Selena Gomez? If it refers to Selena Gomez, how to write the second sentence to refer Sally?

  2. In the second case, is the her incorrectly referring back to Selena Gomez? If her refers to Selena Gomez, how to write the second sentence to refer Sally?

  3. In the second sentence if who refers to Sally, how to write this sentence to refer Selena Gomez?

  4. In the second sentence if her refers to Sally, how to write this sentence to refer Selena Gomez?

  • 3
    Note: who is not an antecedent in any of these examples. In fact, who cannot normally act as an antecedent at all. Who is an anaphor (‘the word that refers back to something’), and the antecedent (‘the word that an anaphor refers back to’) is Sally (or Selena Gomez). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 22 '15 at 15:34
  • The second sentence should be worded differently. To me, Sally and 'the mother of Selena Gomez' seems to refer to the same person and the noun phrase in comas reads like appositive.I have really a hard time getting to the intended meaning. – Barid Baran Acharya Oct 30 '15 at 13:57
3

I agree with rajah9's answer. But your very interesting example is not 100% ambiguous in speech, since there is an intonation of

I called Sally, the mother of Selena Gomez, who urged me to move in with her in Texas.

which makes the "who" refer unambiguously to "Sally". If you pitch your voice low for the part set off by commas, "the mother of Selena Gomez", this makes it a parenthetical (which could have been spelled using parens instead of commas), and now the "who" can't refer back to "Selena Gomez".

This may be a reflection of the pitch agreement between antecedent and pronoun that was discovered by William Cantrall. (Cantrall's paper was given before the Chicago Linguistic Society, but I can't recall the year.)

  • Not sure about your phrasing, as I don't think a thing can be 100% ambiguous. 100% would apply to certainty; anything less than that would be to some degree ambiguous. – Robusto Jun 22 '15 at 14:03
  • 1
    @Robusto, in speech, with some intonations it's ambiguous and with others it's unambiguous. Since we don't know the intonation, this is not a single thing that we're considering, but rather a set of pronunciations, some of which are ambiguous and others of which are unambiguous. – Greg Lee Jun 22 '15 at 16:30
2

Who does not always bind to the closest antecedent. I think the who second sentence does not unambiguously refer to Sally or Selena. (There's no "incorrect" here.)

In the second sentence, most speakers would ask: Who urged you to move?

If the mother is the person urging, I might write:

I called Sally, who urged me to move in with her daughter in Texas. She's the mother of Selena Gomez.

or

The mother of Selena Gomez, Sally, urged me to move in with her in Texas.

If Selena is doing the urging, I might write:

Selena Gomez (whose mother is Sally) urged me to move in with her in Texas.

or

Selena Gomez urged me to move in with her in Texas. I also spoke to her mother, Sally.

1

in the first place, neither of these make it clear whether Selena, Sally, or both live in Texas, or whether they live together. If they live together, it seems Sally would have invited the writer to move in with THEM.

  1. It is ambiguous as to who the "who" refers to. To write it to clearly refer to Sally, try:

    • i called Selena Gomez' mother Sally, who urged me to move in with {her/them?} in Texas.
  2. "her" refers back to the same person as "who" does, whoever that is.. So this can be misconstrued as well. However, on re-reading, the more likely interpretation seems to be that Sally did the urging, and it was with Sally that the writer was urged to move in. "the "mother of Selena Gomez" is then understood as an appositive. But to make this more clear:

    • I called Selena Gomez' Mother Sally; she urged me to move in with her in Texas.
  3. This needs to be rearranged to refer to Selena. Try:

    • {Because/After} Selena Gomez {had} urged me to move in with her in Texas, I called her mother, Sally.
  4. See #3.

  • In #2, her doesn’t necessarily refer back to the same person as who. Both Selena and Sally are ‘in scope’ in the discourse, and her can refer equally well to both. “I called Sally, the mother of Selena Gomez, who [Sally] asked me to move in with her [Selena] in Texas” is a possible reading, as is “I called Sally, the mother of Selena Gomez, who [Selena] asked me to move in with her [Sally] in Texas”. It’s just inherently ambiguous, especially in writing. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 20 '15 at 19:07
  • Agreed. And I just realized that in my number three, it seems that if Selena hadn't urged me to move in, I might have "called" her mother Virginia, but, because Selena had urged me, I called her mother Sally. Still ambiguous! So I'm putting in a comma, to make sure the reader can make a positive (pun intended) identification of Sally as the mother. – Brian Hitchcock Sep 21 '15 at 10:02
1

It doesn't HAVE to touch the person being referred to, but you do have to be careful not to create a sentence with ambiguous meaning. In your second sentence, the second comma makes it clear the "who" if referring to Sally. If it were referring to Selena Gomez, there would be no second comma. However, the average reader could easily be confused by the apparent ambiguity.

-1

My answers are as follows:

  1. 'Who' is referring to Sally not Selena Gomez because the information "the mother of Selena Gomez" is inside the commas hence it is non-essential information.

  2. Again, as "the mother of Selena Gomez" is non-essential information, 'her' must refer back to Sally not Selena.

  3. & 4. For both of these questions, just remove commas and make the information essential.

I called Sally the mother of Selena Gomez who urged me to move in with her in Texas.

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