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I came across the following sentence in a book.

Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone I don't know who is sleeping, I feel trapped.

As far as I know the word someone is defined by two defining relative clauses in the sentence which are :

a. Someone (who /that) I don't know

b. Someone who is sleeping

I would like to ask if I can rewrite the sentence by replacing the relatives clause and reducing them. In this case which ones sounds correct and natural? I ask this question because it is sometimes confusing how many relative clause can be used consecutively and how to connect them at best in a formal writing perspective.

For example :

  1. Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone sleeping who I don't know, I feel trapped.

  2. Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone sleeping I don't know, I feel trapped.

  3. Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone who I don't know sleeping, I feel trapped.

  4. Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone who I don't know who is sleeping, I feel trapped.

  5. Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone who is sleeping who I don't know, I feel trapped

  6. Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone who is sleeping I don't know, I feel trapped

  • 1
    Which book? A novel? English practice book? You don't use which when a person (someone) is an antecedent. Also, please make those words bold that you want to compare. Your question reads more like a request for proof-reading or writing advice. Please narrow down your examples. – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 15:02
  • The use of a comma to separate the two independent clauses is a comma splice, and in this case I would say it is greatly preferable to avoid a comma splice by using a semicolon or writing the second independent clause as a separate sentence,especially since you've asked about formal usage. – Alan Carmack Nov 23 '16 at 15:31
  • If you are quoting another person's work, you need to give proper attribution. – Alan Carmack Nov 23 '16 at 15:46
  • It is highly improbable that I don't know is a relative clause in any of the sentences you've written in your question. For clarity and to avoid unnecessary repetition in the multiple sentences you've provided in the block quote, I highly suggest you delete all instances of , I feel trapped from your question. – Alan Carmack Nov 23 '16 at 15:58
  • Why do you want to rewrite it? The "higher" relative clause is a "bare" relative (the subordinator "that" is missing), so there's only one overt relative word ('who'). This conveniently avoids the repetition in "Worst of all is sitting in a window seat next to someone who/that I don't know who is sleeping". – BillJ Nov 23 '16 at 18:34
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To see the differences between your formulations, try drawing some diagrams. As it's originally written, you get the following structure (called right branching). I use S' to refer to a subordinate clause that either has a gap where the object should be, or a relative pronoun where the subject should be. English allows very deeply nested right-branching structures, and English speakers can parse them pretty easily because they are used to them.

enter image description here

The structure will help you visualize the intended meaning. You can rephrase it as: "A person is asleep next to me: it's someone I don't know." If you try to rephrase it as Someone who I don't know who is sleeping, some listeners will parse it as follows:

enter image description here

You can call this a coordinated or flat structure. You can rephrase it as: "A person is next to me: I do not know them. Also, they are sleeping." This makes sense, but it is not what the author is trying to convey. The point the author is making is that when someone is asleep, you have to be careful not to disturb them, unless it's someone you know. So the fact that they're asleep is only annoying because you don't know them. The "flat" structure would make sense if the author had two types of annoyances: strangers, and sleeping things.

Unrelated to the syntax is the fact that a speaker will omit an optional word if it makes the metrical pattern of the sentence more coherent and better align with the words they want to accent for emphasis. There are three syllables that you can put a focal accent on in "I don't know": on I (dipping pitch, a weird look on your face, emphasizing that others might know, but you surely don't), on don't (falling pitch, a stern stern look on your face, and emphasizing that you really have no idea), or on know (rising-falling pitch, with a nonplussed look on your face, and with a neutral emphasis). But if they italicize I don't know, it means they want you to read it in one of the first two ways, and in this context, probably the first one.

The first syllable of someone is stressed, then you can make a nice sounding pattern of two trochees by pronouncing it ['SOME.ONE] ['I.DONT], and this reinforces the stress on I.

In sum, do not mess with what the author wrote. They wrote it that way for a reason.

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