I just wrote the following sentence which uses a grammatical structure found in my native language, but then I realized English may not work the same way:

Is it valid to copy a line from /etc/mtab (which line was not added by me)?

I intended it to mean the same as:

Is it valid to copy a line from /etc/mtab (the line in question was not added by me)?

So is my original sentence correct?

I don't want to just say "which was not added by me" because then the "which" could refer to /etc/mtab.

I'm not sure how to google this question, so I'm asking here.

  • 2
    English certainly used to license this, but it's probably now affected if not actually archaic.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 8, 2016 at 15:12
  • Agreed. It's rare to see that construction used these days. It's much more common to see "which was not added by me" (omitting the subject "line"). Unfortunately, that's also frequently ambiguous.
    – A C
    Dec 8, 2016 at 17:09

1 Answer 1

  1. I have seen sentences like your original sentence, but mainly in technical contexts (such as "legalese"). I am almost certain that such usages arose from exactly your concern of being ambiguous in language that above all needed not to be. So, your sentence is not incorrect as is, but it sounds a bit stilted or mechanical.

  2. To avoid the "legalese" feeling, I would recast your sentence like this: Is it valid to copy a line (which was not added by me) from /etc/mtab?

    Some (including a time-shifted version of me) would argue that you should use that instead of which in this case, but here I think which is better because the parenthesis is offering extra, non-essential information, rather than specifically restricting your question to lines not added by you.

    Shifting the parenthesis to just after the part of the sentence it modifies will eliminate the ambiguity you were worried about.

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