The boy pushed his brother who was wearing a white short.

"who" refers to what in the sentence above?

If "his brother" was followed by a comma, would the refrence of "who" changes?

Thank you

  • 1
    In your exact example, it's syntactically unambiguous that who refers to the immediately preceding noun ([his] brother). If I change it to, say, I saw the boy pushing his brother who was wearing white shorts, it becomes ambiguous as to whether it's the boy or his brother who's wearing shorts. I don't know how to explain the formal syntax rule making my example different to yours, but there's no doubt in my mind that difference is real (it's not just a matter of more or less likely interpretations). Apr 15, 2019 at 12:20
  • To be honest, I have wanted to state this ambiguous version which you have suggested but couldn't remember the exact structure of it. Another thing, would a comma indicate poor grammar in my original example? Thank you for contributing valuable information.
    – user93080
    Apr 15, 2019 at 17:57
  • 1
    Including the comma (which simply reflects a pause in real spoken language) identifies what follows as a "non-restrictive" relative clause (which just provides additional information about "his brother"). Without the comma, it's a restrictive clause (the boy has multiple brothers; the one he pushed was specifically the one wearing white shorts). Apr 16, 2019 at 12:48
  • Thank you for the clear explanation.
    – user93080
    Apr 17, 2019 at 4:12

2 Answers 2


"Who was wearing a white short" is a relative clause of "his brother." (similar to an adjective but afterwards and it looks like a sentence) In English, relative clauses, (which start with who, whom, which, that and any relative pronoun I might have missed,) normally come immediately after the noun they modify. The starting pronoun (if considered a pronoun) always refers to the immediately preceding noun and it is the subject of the relative clause.

http://glossary.sil.org/term/relative-clause seems to think that "The plumber arrived who we had called earlier." (where who=the plumber) is a good sentence. In this case, notice how, even though relative clause is not immediately after the noun it modifies, there is no other noun between them.

It is also possible to add another noun after the first word of a relative clause. That new word will the become the subject of the clause, and the initial pronoun will become the object. Thus, in: The boy pushed his brother who I hate. Contains the relative clause "who I hate", where I is the subject of the the relative clause, and who (referring to the brother) is the object. Strangely, this type of clause always has OSV (object subject verb) word order.

(Also, I think you meant shirt not short)


In this context, "who" refers to the brother.

If there was an intention to refer to "the boy", the sentence could have been formulated:

The boy who was wearing a white short pushed his brother.

  • 1
    I won't actually downvote, but I disagree completely with more likely in your first sentence. There's absolutely no possibility that who could refer to the boy doing the pushing in OP's example. Syntactically, it's not in the least ambiguous (and including a comma or not makes no difference to this). Apr 15, 2019 at 12:24
  • In this other post (ell.stackexchange.com/questions/204900/…) the "laughing" is definitely ambiguous. But in this case (with the white short), I would 95% understand "the brother", not "the boy". I could say that "the boy" and "who" are too far away, but it will not stand in the other case (linked earlier). However, "The boy pushed his brother wearing a white short." will make it definitely ambiguous, even to me. I have no idea why :)
    – virolino
    Apr 15, 2019 at 12:30
  • Or maybe I misunderstood you? You mean I should say "definitely" instead of "more likely"?
    – virolino
    Apr 15, 2019 at 12:33
  • I think you did misunderstand me. Yes, I mean you should say "definitely" instead of "more likely". It's not "95% likely" that who refers to the brother - it's 100% certain (because of the exact syntax - nothing to do with "probable real-world context", "intended meaning", or anything like that). Apr 15, 2019 at 12:51
  • 1
    OK, thanks. I will update.
    – virolino
    Apr 15, 2019 at 12:51

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