Is this sentence grammatically incorrect?

The cat's—who was still sleeping—bowl is filled with milk.

If not, what does it imply?

  • The cat's (and the beast is still sleeping) bowl is filled with milk. This avoids the unacceptable referencing of cat's by who. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 29 '15 at 16:15
  • The still-sleeping cat’s bowl is filled with milk. – Jim Dec 29 '15 at 16:36
  • It's not a good idea to split after a possessive like that. And your parenthetical does not really have a referent, since it doesn't apply to "cats's" but rather "cat". It would be wise to reword it somehow. – Hot Licks Dec 29 '15 at 16:43
  • The two verb's—"was" and "is"—tenses in the sentence don't agree, and I can't see any justification for this. – Peter Shor Dec 29 '15 at 17:58

Technically, this may not be grammatically incorrect but it is an awkward sentence, which would be improved by revision. Possibilities might include: "The cat--who was still sleeping--was unaware of the bowl being filled with milk" or "Filling the bowl of milk did not waken the sleeping cat."

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An informal way of doing this, which is fairly common in speech, would be:

The cat—who is still sleeping—his bowl is filled with milk.

It's much less common in writing, and would be viewed as informal.

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According to McCawley's discussion of appositive relative clauses in TSPE, an appositive relative clause is not part of the NP referred to by its relative pronoun, but it has to be next to it. In your example, "who is sleeping" is an appositive clause whose relative pronoun "who" refers to "the cat". Yet the appositive clause is not next to "the cat", and that's the problem:

[NP [NP The cat]'s—[S who was still sleeping] —bowl ] is filled with milk.

To fix that difficulty, we'd have to move the appositive clause to the other side of the "'s" possessive ending:

[NP [NP The cat]—[S who was still sleeping]'s —bowl ] is filled with milk.

Unfortunately, this introduces a new difficulty. Now, the "'s" is no longer suffixed to the NP it goes with, "the cat", because in McCawley's treatment, "the cat, who was still sleeping" is not a NP. It's not even a constituent.

So this example substantiates McCawley's theory. There is no grammatical way to associate an appositive relative clause with the NP of a "'s" possessive phrase.

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