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Consider the following sentence:

Certain gram positive bacteria can be associated with oil glands that play a role in acne and skin disease.

I'm wondering what does the word that refer to. Is it 'oil glands' or 'certain gram positive bacteria'?

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  • it refers to oil glands.
    – hunter
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 8:05
  • Oil glands. That cannot refer to bacteria in this case, then the sentence would be incomplete at the end, and the "can be associated with oil glands" would be impossible to parse.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 8:05
  • It is quite possible that the original sentence was wrong, and that this is what was intended: Certain gram positive bacteria can be associated with oil glands and play a role in acne and skin disease. I come across this kind of error all the time in sloppy scientific writing.
    – Merk
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 17:57

2 Answers 2

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It is 'oil glands'.

The word order makes it quite clear.

[...] the glands that [...]

If it were the other way around the sentence would have to be:

Certain bacteria that play a role in acne and skin disease are associated with oily glands.

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  • What about that person is one of the brave soldiers who dies for their country -very interesting discussion happened over this.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 10:00
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    @MaulikV That that is a different word.
    – user230
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 11:33
  • "that person is one of the brave soldiers who dies for their country" ... This would be resolved by using the proper plural verb. "That person is one of the brave soldiers who die for their country". In any case all people in questions have died for their country so the qualification applies to them all. Grammatically though it should belong to the latter, clearly. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 15:04
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"That" here , is a relative pronoun referring to "oil glands". We can use "that"here instead of of the relative pronoun "which"."Certain gram positive bacteria can be associated with oil glands that** play a role in acne and skin disease."

instead of , "Certain gram positive bacteria can be associated with oil glands which play a role in acne and skin disease."

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