Superstition, Flusfeder argues, isn’t some primitive hangover from our distant past. It is the inevitable result of our capacity for taking mental shortcuts, which makes us capable of thinking on our feet, and without which we wouldn’t be able to function at all.

Do the two "which"s refer to "superstition", or "result", or "capacity" or "mental shortcuts"?

  • Both are relative pronouns, which must refer to noun phrases (not just to single nouns). The first which refers to the NP our capacity for taking mental shortcuts, which is the object of of in the NP the result of. The second one also refers to the same noun phrase because of the and, which connects the parallel clauses. The without in front of the second which is the result of Pied Piping but doesn't change anything. Apr 17, 2022 at 15:45
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    @JohnLawler What are "single nouns"? I thought you were contrasting them with noun phrases, but in your comment, doesn't "which" refer to "relative pronouns"? (Is "relative pronouns" a "single noun"?)
    – Lawrence
    Apr 17, 2022 at 17:05
  • If a noun phrase has a head noun, then many people have been taught that relative pronouns refer to that noun. But quite often the noun phrase a relative modifies is an entire clause, which doesn't have a head noun, or the entire NP itself, rather than a part of it. So it's not really correct to say the relative pronouns above refer to a single word; rather they refer to the entire NP it's in. It's a general rule that accounts for more than single words here and there -- constituents are the important parts of syntax. Apr 17, 2022 at 17:54

1 Answer 1


Which must refer to capacity.

Superstition isn't even in the same sentence, and mental shortcuts is plural so it would have to be which make. It doesn't make much sense for which to refer to result.

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