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Here goes a sentence from a grammar test published on the online version of The Telegraph (UK):

I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn't, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.

The question is whether Evelyn is male or female, which to me--since the name and the word sibling can refer to persons of either sex--appeared impossible to define from the wording of the sentence; although the answer is: male. Could someone kindly explain to me where the correct answer comes from?

  • Most likely whoever you're introducing to Evelyn will be able to see straight off what sex s/he is. But you'd know if Evelyn was particularly androgynous-looking, and if it was important that the other person should know his/her sex, just say ...and to my only other sibling, my brother / sister Evelyn. – FumbleFingers Jun 2 '18 at 18:04
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    It's not a grammar test in my opinion, it is a semantic/logic test. "my brother who doesn't (live in NY) could, if you're a nitpicker and not actually trying to communicate with someone, imply that there is a brother that does live in NY. However, in normal conversation it wouldn't be taken that way. Actually in normal conversation, the siblings would be standing in front of you and their gender would be obvious. Unless you were blind. Also, we would not normally say "sibling", we would say brother or sister unless we were talking about a mixed group of siblings. – ColleenV Jun 2 '18 at 18:05
  • @ColleenV: I wouldn't be too sure about that. Obviously nobody says I have two brothers and sisters, but apparently today we're more likely to have three siblings than to have three brothers and sisters. Plus it makes a difference whether it's I have them or He had them. – FumbleFingers Jun 2 '18 at 18:14
  • @FumbleFingers You missed the "unless we're talking about a mixed group...." This is my sister (I wouldn't say sibling). I have four siblings and all but one live in New York (there's a mix of genders). I have three brothers (I wouldn't say siblings). – ColleenV Jun 3 '18 at 0:36
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    To fully understand this test you have to understand that the Telegraph is a very conservative-leaning newspaper. Preserving arcane rules of grammar is highly important to their target audience. – Alistair Buxton Jun 3 '18 at 19:17
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It is a bad question that doesn't test English skills and so should be ignored.

I believe the questioner wants you to notice the difference between:

Amanda, who lives in New York

and

my brother who doesn't [live in New York]

The first, with a comma, is a non-restrictive relative clause. It describes Amanda.

The second, without a comma, is a restrictive clause. It, therefore, implies that there must be another brother who does live in New York. Mark is the brother who doesn't live in New York, so Evelyn must be the brother who does live in New York.

It's nonsense; it's a stupid trick not based on actual English Grammar. The distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses is interesting but it doesn't work like this. I believe that the great majority of intelligent and educated native speakers would get this question wrong, as Evelyn is an extremely rare boy's name, the assumption would be that Evelyn is a girl.

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    The question is alright provided we agree the distinction between supplementary and integrated relatives is always reflected in writing by setting off the supplementary type by commas. This distinction isn't practiced by everyone everywhere (CaGEL p.1058), but is quite commonly observed and taught, and it is evidently a useful one, given that in some (bona fide) sentences it can make a difference. Moreover, this isn't nonsense – it makes perfect sense as you've shown – it's just that it's a tricky question that requires meticulous reading of the sentence with certain assumptions. – userr2684291 Jun 2 '18 at 20:21
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    It's the sort of question that treats language as a set of rules you can rules-lawyer your way through, rather than a mechanism for communicating where the speaker bears responsibility for ensuring their message is understood. – Zach Lipton Jun 3 '18 at 8:58
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    I wouldn't get it 'wrong', because there is no 'right' – Strawberry Jun 3 '18 at 10:19
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    @userr2684291 I dispute that implication. For one thing, it rests on the principle that if the speaker had only one brother they wouldn't have said "who doesn't". People often say things which other people might infer otherwise. For another thing, the question's text is a written transcript of a (hypothetical) speech -- it is possible that someone transcribing speech misinterpreted the speaker's intentions (as to whether a clause is to be restrictive or not). – Rosie F Jun 3 '18 at 10:29
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    @RosieF I agree; people often misinterpret what other people say or write. Here we're concerned only with what the sentence actually says and the interpretation thereof – not with what it doesn't say. The origin of the sentence is also beside the point. Anyway, the distinction boils down to the one between the following two sentences: 1. The gun, which I don't use, is under my bed; 2. The gun which I don't use is under my bed. The second sentence, unlike the first, implies there exists another gun. – userr2684291 Jun 3 '18 at 13:54
9

I followed the link to the test. Although I couldn't see the test itself, I was able to locate the answers and then some further discussion (which, unfortunately, just makes everything worse):

This question asked whether it was possible to ascertain the sex of Evelyn from the following sentence:

“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to my brother Mark who doesn't, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn."

As certain readers pointed out, this sentence was in fact ambiguous, suggesting an impossible scenario in which the speaker had two brothers who were both called Mark, and an "only other sibling" called Evelyn. Having sifted through the readers' comments, Mr Gwynne says the sentence should have read “I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn't, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn."

Gwynne explains: "The absence of a comma before 'who doesn't' makes that clause part of the definition of 'Mark, my brother', implying that there are other brothers. A comma after the words 'my brother' would mean that there was only one brother."

I find the discussion of one or two brothers named Mark to be a complete red herring when it comes to the gender of Evelyn.

Further, the "implication" of something isn't a sufficient argument for something definitive when it comes to grammar, and no matter how many times I try to understand how a comma after my brother would necessitate there being only one brother, I just don't see it.

In short, I believe the statements of the people behind this test are simply wrong—as are the further comments provided by Gwynne. I would not follow this site as an authoritative source.


Edit: Thanks to James for providing an answer about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. That partially explains what Gwynne was trying to get across. Unfortunately, it's still not correct.

Suggesting that the meaning of a specific part of a sentence necessarily determines that of the entire sentence is a false premise. At best, if one part contradicts another part, it means that the sentence needs to be rewritten.

Consider this:

Here is my sister, who lives in New York, my brother who doesn't, my second sister, who does, and my second brother who doesn't.

You can't claim that there's only one sister and one brother just because a restrictive clause has been used. The most you can say here is that the person has at least two sisters and two brothers—and that they should have used some additional commas in the expression of that fact . . .

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    Saying my sister doesn't preclude you from saying my second sister later in the sentence. This is about what a so-called "restrictive" relative implies. Mark, my brother who doesn't live in New York implies you have at least one more brother. Just read the part after Mark quickly and you'll know what I mean. I would not read your last blockquoted sentence as saying there's just one sister and one brother. – userr2684291 Jun 2 '18 at 21:12
  • @userr2684291 Quite right. Because a restrictive clause on its own is not a sufficient criterion for received meaning—especially when used in a complex sentence. The point is that the test sentence was highly contrived, implied that syntax is the only determiner of meaning, and it was offered in a way that was somewhat disingenuous with respect to how people were expected to interpret it. – Jason Bassford Jun 2 '18 at 22:14
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    @userr2684291: But that sentence implies nothing about the existence of another brother, at least as it would be understood by an American English speaker. It only says that the brother named Mark doesn't live in New York. – jamesqf Jun 3 '18 at 5:16
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    @jamesqf Consider the following two sentences: 1. The gun which I don't use is under my bed. 2. The gun, which I don't use, is under my bed. Do you perceive any difference between the two sentences? If yes, try to apply that to the original sentence to understand why the answer is what it is. – userr2684291 Jun 3 '18 at 13:59
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    @userr2684291: No, I don't see any difference in meaning in those two examples. Both are ambiguous: they could mean there's either one gun which is not used and kept under the bed, or that there are (at least) two, and the unused one is kept under the bed. – jamesqf Jun 4 '18 at 16:53
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The given answer is incorrect, your answer was correct. There is not enough information to draw a correct conclusion from the given sentence, particularly in todays world. Evelyn could be undergoing the required procedures to become legally one sex or the other, the name being either the name before, after or throughout. Evelyn could be a true hermaphrodite or have klinefelter's in which case neither male nor female would be entirely accurate.

A more likely scenario than the speaker being an ultra-pendant speaker of English, would be a family joke or conflict about living in NY if there was to be extra meaning implied by the comma.

Grammar does not constrain the real world.

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It is a highly contrived question, and the answer given is simply wrong.

What appears to be the intent of the intended statement is to say I have only three siblings: these are my sister Amanda, my brother Mark, and my brother Evelyn. Note that statement does three completely different things, specifying the number of your siblings and identifying specific individuals by both name and sex. There are hundreds of ways to do that. Because many names in English are sex specific, you can NORMALLY condense the information and identify sex implicitly. I have only three siblings, Amanda, Mark, and Charles will give their names and specify that you have two brothers and one sister unless your parents were very peculiar.

Some names are not sex specific. In that case, you cannot identify sex implicitly. All that is objective.

How you might best impart the desired information in the context of the given sentence is subjective opinion. An intuitively obvious way to do it is to say my only other sibling, my brother Evelyn.

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