For example,

The translator has to use expressions in the target text (that are different from those in the source text).

I hope "that" can refer to expressions, but I feel it will refer to "the target text" if I put "that" after "the target text".

I guess I can say something like

The translator has to use expressions different from those in the source text in the target text

but I feel it sounds very awkward.

In this case, how can "that" refer to "expressions"?

  • 4
    You're starting out with the wrong idea. It doesn't "refer to a word". In that sentence it refers to a Noun Phrase, not just one noun. This NP is expressions in the target text, which is the direct object of use, and the antecedent of the relative clause that are different from those in the source text (parentheses irrelevant). Those "other words" are not "between" anything; language is not words on a string. It's constructions and constituents. Jun 22 '20 at 2:10

The word "are" (not "is") immediately after "that" indicates that the antecedent of "that" must be plural, and the nearest (in fact only) candidate is "expressions".


You're right that it's grammatically ambiguous. But readers use context and common sense to disambiguate.

In this case, the dependent clause contains the noun phrase "those in the source text". So the reader looks for a parallel phrase in the main clause, and finds "expressions in the target text". It's clear that these are the intended comparisons.

It would make less sense to compare "those in the source text" with just "the target text".

When there's less to go on in the semantics, the default is that the most recent noun phrase is the antecedent. But it has to make sense, and we rescan when necessary.

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