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Two mortal years in which nothing had been accomplished.

Why do we need the preposition in in front of which?
Is two mortal years the object of the preposition in and does the preposition in act as a modifier for accomplished?

They talk about other bright young things to whom they referred by nicknames.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)

Same question , why is the preposition to placed in front of whom?
Does it follow the verb referred or the phrase referred by nicknames

"talk about other bright young things whom they referred to by nicknames"
or
"talk about other bright young things whom they referred by nicknames to" ?

  • The preposition in is required to reflect the relationship between the primary noun (two mortal years) and the verb-based "adjectival" clause that modifies it. In principle it could be relocated to the end of the utterance: Two years which nothing had been accomplished in, but that sounds a bit clumsy to my ear today. On the other hand, the preposition to in the second sentence doesn't sit well with me in that "fronted" position. I'd much prefer ...other bright young things whom they referred to by nicknames. But it'd be a brave man who'd criticize Orwell. – FumbleFingers Feb 15 at 17:13
  • Here's another example of "awkwardly" inserting a preposition-based adverbial element inside a verb-linked preposition (referred to, paid for)... Customers also grow angry quickly if they want to return something they paid in cash for, but Spencer's doesn't give cash refunds. It's "do-able" in certain contexts, but I wouldn't make a habit of it. And I doubt there are really any useful rules / principles explaining exactly when you might be able to get away with this kind of thing. – FumbleFingers Feb 15 at 17:28
  • @FumbleFingers Thanks, so grammatically speaking , the second sentence can be possible , but it just doesn't make much sense? And for the first question, does it mean that "two mortal years" is the object of the preposition in? – jana Feb 15 at 17:49
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    In your first example, the preposition "in" is needed to indicate the connection between the temporal NP "mortal years” and the verb "accomplished" which it modifies. The PP “in which” thus functions as a temporal adjunct in the structure of the relative clause, where "which" has "mortal years" as antecedent. Yes, "mortal years" is complement of "in". – BillJ Feb 15 at 18:17
  • I suppose you could say that two mortal years is the "object" of in, yes. But I'm not so happy with the second sentence can be [is] possible , but it just doesn't make much sense. It makes perfect sense - it's just that the syntax is a trifle "unusual, poetic, stylized". – FumbleFingers Feb 15 at 18:18
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Perhaps it will help to think of a relative clause as an independent clause which is transformed into a dependent clause by substituting a relativizer (who, which, how, etc.) for one of its constituents (the same thing as the relativizer's external referent) and then putting that relativizer at the front of the clause.

        the dog bit [the man]
        the dog bit [ whom  ]
                        ↓
       ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ←
      ↓                 ↓
   whom the dog bit  _(gap)_

Note that moving the relativizer leaves a "gap", a missing constituent in the clause—in this case, the direct object of bit. We parse the role of the relativizer by locating the gap.

In your sentences, the relativizer represents the object of a preposition. In colloquial English we just leave the preposition "stranded" at the end of the clause.

         nothing had been accomplished in [two mortal years]
         nothing had been accomplished in [     which      ]
                                                  ↓
       ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← 
      ↓                                           ↓
   which nothing had been accomplished in ______(gap)______

But in long clause like this one hunting for the gap is much easier if you know what sort of gap you're looking for. Consequently, English offers another strategy called "pied-piping": the relativizer carries the preposition along with it to the front of the clause. Now you know that you're looking for a place where the preposition phrase in X fits.

         nothing had been accomplished [in two mortal years]
         nothing had been accomplished [in      which      ]
                                           ↓
       ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← 
      ↓                                    ↓
in which nothing had been accomplished __(gap)_____________

Pied-piping is preferred in formal registers. Note, however, that the preposition is only pied-piped if the relativizer represents its object. If the preposition is intransitive it remains in place.

        the dog bit off [his hand] 
        the dog bit off [ which  ]
                            ↓
       ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ← ←
      ↓                     ↓
  which the dog bit off  _(gap)_
  • Thank you , but can you explain more about "if the preposition is intransitive it remains in place" , I don't quite get it. – jana Feb 16 at 14:37

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