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When I got back my test recently, I oddly found that my English teacher thinks that there is an error in the usage of adverbial clauses in

"It seems that moving the body while learning, which forces the learner to concentrate, improves memory."

He claimed that "which" must come directly after the word it modifies, but I am still not convinced. Could someone kindly point out whether the sentence is grammatically correct or not. Please elaborate.

  • Isn't "moving the body while learning" the thing modified? – Lawrence May 13 '18 at 16:54
  • Where, exactly, did the teacher think 'which' should be ? If not, as commented above, directly after the thing modified. – Nigel J May 13 '18 at 16:56
  • Your teacher is wrong in this instance: it's OK. In defining relative clauses the relative word does normally occur straight after its antecedent noun. But "which forces the learner to concentrate" is a non-defining relative clause, and such relatives are not modifiers but supplements that don't combine with a noun to form a larger noun phrase, but are non-constituents, being either an interpolation (as in your ex) or an appendage. Rather than being modifiers, they have a semantic anchor that they refer to: in your example, the anchor is the clause "moving the body while learning". – BillJ May 13 '18 at 16:58
  • What does the which stand for? – mahmud koya May 13 '18 at 17:01
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    Possible duplicate of "Dangling Participles" – Bread May 15 '18 at 21:40
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When considering this answer, please note that just because something is a grammatical English sentence, that doesn't mean it counts as a correct answer to a question on an exam. It all depends on what the question actually asked and on any 'ground rules' that the teacher may have set up.

Having said all that, there is nothing wrong with your sentence as an English sentence. It is fine both as far as formal grammar and as far as rules of good writing. As far as the latter, I'm not saying that the sentence couldn't be improved. However, I am saying that any modification in order to improve it would be a matter of personal preference and style, not of grammar.

If your teacher is really saying that, as a matter of grammar, which must immediately follow the word it refers to, then your teacher is indeed mistaken, in several respects. First of all, the antecedent of which need not be a single word at all; it may be a whole noun phrase (NP) or a whole nonfinite clause (the latter, in fact, is the case in your sentence). Second, the reason why people sometimes say such things is to help novices avoid writing confusing and ambiguous sentences. The actual rule (of good writing) is that it should be clear to the reader what it is that which refers to. If it is clear, then there is no problem.

Discussion

Here is a relevant passage from CGEL (p. 1035). Note that, in CGEL's terminology, your relative clause (which forces the learner to concentrate) is a supplementary relative clause:

The supplementary relative is also distinguished from the integrated relative in that it permits a much wider range of antecedents, as is evident from such examples as:

[3]  i  Pat is afraid of snakes, which I'm sure Kim is too.                     [AdjP]
      ii  Pat is afraid of snakes, which doesn't surprise me at all.       [clause]

The antecedents for which here are an AdjP [adjective phrase) in [i] and a whole clause in [ii], the relative clauses being interpreted as "I'm sure Kim is afraid of snakes too" and "That Pat is afraid of snakes doesn't surprise me at all". The antecedent can indeed be a piece of text syntactically unconnected to the relative, as when a lecturer finishes one topic and then moves on to the next with the supplementary relative Which brings me to my next point.

Here are more examples from published literature:

So far no such reaction has been found, which may be due simply to... (source)
(Speaking of circumcision:) In general both Greeks and Romans found the custom repulsive and ridiculous, which led to tensions especially with Jews. (source)
Change takes a long time to sink in here, which is also why, whenever I identified myself as the writer come to write about the village and La Récréation, they looked momentarily puzzled. (source)
Illumined and elevated by his grace and favor, they adored what they saw in him, which they did not previously see because of their blindness and lowliness. (source)
Abigail also regularly wrote personal letters, which was her method of staying in touch with friends. (source; note that it is which was and not which were. Therefore, which doesn't refer to letters, which would require the plural were, but to 'regularly writing personal letters', which takes singular agreement.)

  • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, and I apologize for not clearing up what the question was: It was "Combine each of the following pairs of sentences into a complex sentence using an adjective or an adverb clause. 1. It seems that moving the body while learning improves memory. Movement forces the learner to concentrate." I assume that, in this case, I should not have a mark deducted. – Omar kamal May 13 '18 at 17:08
  • Wish me luck trying to convince him to give me my mark back. – Omar kamal May 13 '18 at 17:11
  • @Omarkamal Unfortunately, there is also a matter of any relevant 'ground rules', which may have been laid down previously in the course. For example, the teacher may have said during the lectures that he will insist on which following the word it modifies. And he may have good reasons for insisting on that in this particular class, reasons informed by his teaching experience. In that case, the only way he could be 'wrong' is if the question is impossible to answer given the rules. So it would be helpful if you could reproduce the exact wording of the question, in its totality. – linguisticturn May 13 '18 at 17:14
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    @BillJ You're right; I've rephrased. – linguisticturn May 13 '18 at 17:28
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    @Omarkamal As I said in my replay, it is a perfectly fine sentence in English. So, yes, it is grammatically correct. – linguisticturn May 13 '18 at 17:59

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