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Consider the sentence' "We arrived at Lok Kalyan Marg, which is what they now call Race Course Road." And the two meanings

  1. Lok Kalyan Marg was the erstwhile name and Race Course Road is the new name
  2. Race course road was the old name and Lok Kalyan Marg is the new name.

Which (one or both) of these meanings does the sentence deliver? Does it also imply any other meanings?

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  • As you can tell from the two contradictory answers, it's poorly written. It would be better to say something like "formerly called Race Course Road".
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 22:53

2 Answers 2

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Reading (2) sounds right to me. "what" as it appears in the second clause seems to function as an anaphor, referring back to "Lok Kalyan Marg" since there are no other noun-phrases in the preceding clause. If you wanted reading (1), you might convey it with:

"We arrived at Lok Kalyan Marg, which they now call Race Course Road."

That said, I agree with @MarcInManhattan that there is a use/mention ambiguity here. I think though that this is a philosophical rather than linguistic issue. Consider:

"Giorgione was so-called because of his size."

That seems to me to be a perfectly correct English sentence. "so" is an anaphor for "Giorgione". We would not want to write:

"'Giorgione' was so-called because of his size."

because the phrase "Giorgione" isn't really called anything (except perhaps ""Giorgione"") and doesn't have a size. But we do mean to say that some person G had a certain name because he was of a certain size. I think the key here is that "so-called" is a sort of reflexive device that allows you to track back to an earlier noun phrase that you previously used but now want to mention, "what" in your sentence seems to function similarly.

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This concerns the use-mention distinction: Is the phrase "Lok Kalyan Marg" being "used" to indicate the road, or is the name of the road simply being "mentioned"?

People can not arrive at a phrase, so "Lok Kalyan Marg" must be used to indicate the actual road. In that case, even though the writer calls it "Lok Kalyan Marg", that does not necessarily mean that anyone else calls it that or has ever called it that. The only thing that we know for sure about it is that it is now called "Race Course Road".

However, some people might interpret "Lok Kalyan Marg" as performing double-duty; i.e., perhaps the phrase is also being "mentioned" as the antecedent of the relative clause. In that case, it is the current name of the road, while the phrase "Race Course Road" is being "used" by the author to refer to the road and might not be used by anyone else.

I would recommend against the second interpretation, which requires "Lok Kalyan Marg" to perform double-duty and thus introduces ambiguity. To avoid this issue, writers often use quotation marks to indicate phrases that are being "mentioned", e.g.:

We arrived at Lok Kalyan Marg, which is what they now call "Race Course Road".

We arrived at a road called "Lok Kalyan Marg", which is what they now call Race Course Road.

By the way, there is another issue here, too, concerning syntax within the nominal clause. (This a very interesting question!) If "Lok Kalyan Marg" is being used and "Race Course Road" is being mentioned, then "what" is the direct object and "Race Course Road" the predicative nominal. However, if "Lok Kalyan Marg" is being mentioned and "Race Course Road" is being used, then "Race Course Road" is the direct object and "what" the predicative nominal.

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  • I think we have different interpretations of the role of "what" here. As I interpret it "We arrived at Lok Kalyan Marg, which is what they now call 'Race Course Road'." states that the phrase "Race Course Road" is now called "Lok Kalyan Marg", rather than that the road that was called "Lok Kalyan Marg" is now called "Race Course Road". I agree it is an interesting question though!
    – Marmitrob
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 5:07
  • @Marmitrob the phrase "Race Course Road" is now called "Lok Kalyan Marg" --> How can a phrase be called another phrase? I don't quite get that. Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 5:11
  • Lok Kalyan Marg, formerly Race Course Road, is a road in New Delhi, India. It is located south of Central Delhi. The nearest Delhi Metro station is Lok Kalyan Marg station. Wikipedia
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 7:17
  • I’d say it’s ambiguous. An archeologist may be speaking of arriving at an ancient site now called by another name. Make clear what you want to ssy.
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 7:20
  • It may be technically ambiguous, but to anyone who knows that, in former colonies, many English or Anglicised place names are being replaced with names in the local language, there's no real ambiguity. Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 8:39

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