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When used after a list of nouns, does the pronoun who refer to all items in the list or only the last one? How can one avoid ambiguity?

E.g.:

a) The Romans and the Etruscans, who inhabited modern Tuscany, fought for dominance of central Italy.

Does who refer to the Etruscans only or to the Romans as well?

b) We had dinner with the Smiths and the Thorpes, who are visiting from California.

Who's visiting from California? Just the Thorpes or the Smiths as well?

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    The Romans and the Etruscans, who both inhabited modern Tuscany, fought for dominance of central Italy. // The Etruscans (who inhabited modern Tuscany) and the Romans fought for dominance of central Italy. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 23 '17 at 14:52
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    @EdwinAshworth - Would you also like "The Romans and the Etruscans, both of whom inhabited etc."? – aparente001 Aug 24 '17 at 0:51
  • @aparente001 I avoid whom where possible, even when talking about ancient history. But it wouldn't be ungrammatical. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 24 '17 at 16:45
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    @EdwinAshworth - I'd like to hear more about this "whom" avoidance. Are you okay answering in a comment, or should I try to draft a question? – aparente001 Aug 24 '17 at 19:09
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm with aparente001 and then some. I sometimes chicken out of using whom but that's chickening in specific circumstances How is trying to avoid whom where possible not admitting that we often should and sometimes must use it… in which case why not just follow the rules? – Robbie Goodwin Sep 7 '17 at 20:51
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It depends on the context. Consider:

  • Most of the money was raised from Mets fans and Yankees fans, who inhabited the same city and experienced the same concerns.

  • The priest and the penitent, who occupied the furthest confessional, could not possibly have heard the muffled gunshot. The would be useless as witnesses.

  • John, Paul, George and Ringo, who would later become famous as The Beatles, were at that point playing in an obscure German nightclub.

Without the surrounding words to give context, the who clause typically modifies the noun that it follows most closely. However, it can be made to "reach back" quite a way, especially if the list is perceived as a group.

On the other hand, consider again our friends the Smiths and the Thorpes, with some additional detail that would typically apply to only one party:

  • We dined with the Smiths and the Thorpes, who had just moved into their new house, and who ordered like their bank account was scraping rock bottom.

I don't think that there's a general rule, since the perception of (say) John, Paul, George and Ringo as a group will also depend on the reader's prior knowledge. Same thing for knowing how people might act at an expensive restaurant, buy a house, share a bank account and so on.

You can sometimes can make use of words to group or separate the elements of the noun list, e.g. "same city", "famous as The Beatles", etc. But someone unfamiliar with the Catholic church might not grasp immediately how the priest and the penitent occupy the same space.

If in doubt, it's probably because your own prior knowledge is not grouping or ungrouping the nouns clearly. You can reasonably infer that your readers will also have trouble, and that you should rephrase what you are hoping to convey.

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I think it is clear that the clause beginning with "who" refers to only the last member of the list in both of your examples. However, you could rephrase the sentences.

"The Romans and the Etruscans (who inhabited modern Tuscany) fought for dominance in Italy."

You could also consider omitting the clause and including it in the next sentence. It would be advisable because it is not clear what happened when. Had the Etruscans inhabited Tuscany before they fought the Romans? Or did their inhabiting Tuscany happen after they had fought?

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    I don't agree with your first statement, and choosing to use brackets doesn't disambiguate either. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 23 '17 at 14:50

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