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Stopbank acts as a flood barrier to stop river water from flooding homes. The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the river that is higher than the 100-year flood level.

What does that is in the passage refer to? river or stopank?

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    It refers to a small mound of land. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 29 '17 at 16:27
  • @StoneyB did you come to this just by looking at the grammatical structure or by logical meaning of the sentence? – Cavid Hummatov Apr 29 '17 at 16:57
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    "The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the river that ____ is higher than the 100-year flood level". "That" doesn't refer to anything; it is just a meaningless clause subordinator. The nominal "small mound of land next to the river" is the antecedent to 'gap', marked '____'. – BillJ Apr 29 '17 at 17:02
  • don't understand exactly what you're trying to mean by "gap" , but I'm not asking what is antecedent to anything. – Cavid Hummatov Apr 29 '17 at 17:12
  • This calls for parsing (breaking the sentence into its component parts): The stopbank is/a mound of land/next to the river/that is higher than the 100-year flood level. Now, if we write: /The stopbank is a riparian mound of land that is higher than the 100-year flood level/, you can see how it goes with mound of land. Riparian solves the problem or at least makes the structure easy to understand. – Lambie Apr 29 '17 at 17:46
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Nice question! This is one of those things that people understand implicitly, but might struggle to explain.

As StoneyB mentioned, the that refers to the stopbank (which is described as a small mount of land next to the river), and not the river.


Longer Explanation

The sentence you've provided is a combination of two sentences (or it can be broken down into two sentences):

The stopbank is higher than the 100-year flood level.

The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the river.

Now, these sentences can be combined using parentheses or hyphens like this:

The stopbank (a small mound of land next to the river) is higher than the 100-year flood level.

The stopbank - a small mound of land next to the river - is higher than the 100-year flood level.

Both these forms resolve the ambiguity you raised in the question, however in doing so they slightly interrupt the flow of the sentence, particularly when these sentences are spoken. To avoid this, the sentence is written the way it is in your question:

The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the river that is higher than the 100-year flood level.

Now, our understanding that the that is refers to the stopbank is probably enhanced by the context of the sentence. Let's replace river with bridge (since bridges are usually higher than rivers), and see how the sentence appears:

The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the bridge that is higher than the 100-year flood level.

Interestingly, reading this sentence reveals that it was a contextual clue helping us earlier. If you read the sentence thinking that the stopbank is higher, then the sentence makes sense. Conversely, if you read the sentence thinking that the bridge is higher, then it still makes sense. Now, both interpretations cannot be correct, since only one of them can be higher than the other!

To correct this, it would be better to write the original sentence as:

The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the river and is higher than the 100-year flood level.

This goes back to the beginning where I pointed out that this was in fact two sentences combined into one, and here we're using and to link them.

If we do want to indicate that it is the bridge that is higher than the 100-year flood level, we would qualify the word bridge with a that:

The stopbank is a small mound of land next to that bridge which is higher than the 100-year flood level.

(Notice that the that is has become which is just to avoid the clunky sounding phrase that bridge that is)

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  • and you've made the nice and wise explanation. Thanks for that first of all. So the main point of your statement is that - these are mainly contextual clues that help us properly comprehend the reference point. Let's say, the sentence goes on like that - The stopbank is a small mound of land next to the bridge that is higher than the 100-year flood level and has a stunning view from afar. - Then how would you form the sentence to avoid ambiguity ? – Cavid Hummatov Apr 29 '17 at 17:46
  • @CavidHummatov - In such a case, I'd personally split it into constituents - either as separate sentences (if all the points are of equal importance in context), or using parentheses/hyphens (for a less important point in that context). – Phylyp Apr 29 '17 at 18:18
  • How can a meaningless clause subordinator refer to something? That's not its job. It exists solely to introduce the relative clause "that is higher than the 100-year flood level". Note that "that" is not a relative pronoun. – BillJ Apr 29 '17 at 18:35
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    @BillJ What do you mean "that" is not a relative pronoun. Does this have anything to do with the modern Grammar? Or I forgot something. – Cardinal Apr 29 '17 at 19:38
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    @Cardinal Yes: traditional grammar treats "that" as a relative pronoun, but modern grammar has proved that analysis to be completely wrong. Most grammarians nowadays treat it as a subordinator, the same item that introduces content clauses. – BillJ Apr 30 '17 at 10:08
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"The river" is a part of the noun phrase "small mound of land (that is)next to the river"; and this noun phrase is modified by another relative clause " that is higher than the 100-year flood level". So that means, the relative pronoun refers to "small mound of land (that is)next to the river".

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Whether we regard that as a relative pronoun or as a clause subordinator, we cannot avoid the question of where to pin the tail on the donkey: What does the that-clause go with or modify?

When our goal is to provide "actionable information", we do well to avoid ambiguities.

Situated beside the river, the stopbank is a small mound of land that is higher than the 100-year flood level.

Even there some small ambiguity remains, even after we have moved "Situated beside the river" to the head of the sentence so that the river is not a viable donkey (the river can be above the 100-year flood level). Does the that-clause modify "mound" or "land" or the entire noun-phrase "a small mound of land"?

We can easily resolve that ambiguity by asking whether it makes good sense to say that the mound is fashioned from [that's what of means here] a substance which is higher than the 100-year flood-level? That would be like saying Her rings are made of gold deeper than most gold deposits. Her rings are made of gold which was mined deeper than most gold deposits, perhaps. No, it does not make good sense to say that, and so land is not the donkey.

So that leaves mound as the only viable donkey if the choice is between "mound" and "land".

We can sidestep that decision by pinning the tail on the entire noun phrase: "a small mound of land".

P.S. If we leave the sentence "as is" and don't move beside the river to the head of the sentence, then the tail would be pinned on a small mound of land next to the river.

and in that case we would have to rely upon our knowledge of how definite and indefinite articles function to know that river is not the donkey. When defining something — when referring to it in the abstract and not to a particular instance of it — just as we say "a small mound of land" we would say a river, if we wanted river to be the donkey:

"... a small mound of land next to a river that is above the 100-year flood-level".

So, when it says "next to the river**, we know that river specifically is not the donkey.

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