3

For example:

Stella Adler trained several generations of actors who include Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Does who in this example refer to actors or generations?

Stella Adler trained several generations of actors whose ranks include Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Does who in this example refer to actors or generations?

  • 3
    In both sentences, it's ambiguous -- the relative can refer to either prior noun phrase. This is what is known in the trade as an "attachment ambiguity" -- it tends to happen at the end of a sentence, when there are a lot of qualifications, one after another. – John Lawler Dec 5 '18 at 23:34
  • 1
    However, the ambiguity is rather resolved in the first case by the choice of relative who which refers only to people (or, at least, sentient beings). In the second case, whose is not restricted to people, so it might attach to either. – Colin Fine Dec 5 '18 at 23:46
  • Ahh good point! @ColinFine – johnnyodonnell Dec 5 '18 at 23:48
  • @ColinFine When 'generations' means 'generations of people', I think 'generations' itself can be the antecedent of the relative word who. – JK2 Jun 5 at 1:48
1

If I understand the question correctly, the question is which word is the head of the NP which "who" refers to.

In this case it's easy to resolve any ambiguity. You can train actors but you can't train a generation. The only way to understand the first sentence entails treating "several generations of" as a quantifier. As such, "generations" can't be that head. This implies that that head must be "actors".

Compare:

Stella Adler trained a large number of actors who include Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.

In this variant, the head of the NP referred to be "who" can't be "number".

  • This is an interesting take on analyzing the sentence. I haven't read much about quantifiers yet. Are there any sources that you can share so that I can up on them? I'm not 100% convinced yet that "generations" is not the head of the sentence. – johnnyodonnell Dec 6 '18 at 22:50
  • Determining the head of an NP is not really based on semantics, but on what linguistic theory you follow. Also, I think you can "train a generation". Stella Adler trained several generations. makes sense to me as a stand-alone sentence. – JK2 Jun 5 at 1:54
0

The referent of a pronoun is a semantic unit and need not map one-to-one on a given word. In this case who is coreferent with the noun phrase (NP) several generations of actors.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.