13

My neighbor Mr. Lee is 70 years old who plays basketball every day.

My teacher said that pronoun "who" is too far from the subject, so this is a grammatical error. But Grammarly told me that this sentence has no grammatical errors. Who is right?

25

I think the most common phrasing of this sentence (which is ungrammatical exactly as written) simply adds the indefinite article before the age, in order to turn it into a noun.

In short:

My neighbour Mr. Lee is a 70-year-old who plays basketball every day.

With this change, the pronoun now makes perfect sense exactly where it is.

  • 1
    To make perfect sense shouldn't it be "is a 70-year old man who plays basketball every day"? – laugh Jul 11 at 18:50
  • 3
    @laugh No. The expression, on its own, is genderless. And the grammar is specifically different. Both a 70-year-old man and a 70-year-old woman are still 70-year olds. Depending on usage, old is either part of a compound adjective or a noun. – Jason Bassford Jul 11 at 18:57
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    @laugh In fact, while not wrong, you could argue that man is redundant, since the sentence already specifies Mr., which can only refer to a man anyway. – Jason Bassford Jul 11 at 19:07
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    I believe to be fully correct you need an additional hyphen: "70-year-old" – Timbo Jul 11 at 21:18
  • @Timbo After some specific investigation into this, you are correct! :) It's mostly a matter of style, but I normally follow The Chicago Manual of Style, and it does hyphenate the entire phrase in this context. – Jason Bassford Jul 12 at 0:43
22

The sentence doesn't make sense as it stands.

I would reconstruct it to something like:

My neighbour Mr Lee, who plays basketball every day, is 70 years old

or

My neighbour Mr Lee, who is 70 years old, plays basketball every day

or even

My neighbour Mr Lee is 70 years old and plays basketball every day

  • 8
    It would be helpful to explain why the three options you presented make more sense while the original does not – katatahito Jul 11 at 7:54
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    The reason the original does not make sense is that "My neighbour Mr. Lee is 70 years old." is a finished sentence. At this point you can either write a period (full stop) or add a conjunction such as "and" if you want to write a compound sentence. The words "Who plays basketball every day." are not a valid extension because they are not connected grammatically to the first part. Leaving out the period and not capitalizing "who" is not enough to connect them. As a consequence, the last part becomes a question "Who plays basketball every day?" – David42 Jul 11 at 14:34
  • @achAmháin Thank you for your examples. Can I remove the commas if I write an essay? Like this sentence, "My neighbour Mr Lee who is 70 years old plays basketball every day" – Ethan Jul 11 at 17:36
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    No, you would not want to remove the commas. You could replace them with em-dashes — large dashes which can denote a sidebar within the sentence — but commas are far more common and are needed for clarity. – IronFlare Jul 11 at 17:39
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    @Ethan If you have more than one neighbour, and you are trying to specify which neighbor you're talking about, then you definitely do not want commas or any other punctuation. In that context, the name is an essential part of the sentence and parenthetical punctuation should not be used. If it's understood it could only be a single neighbor, then any parenthetical punctuation is fine. – Jason Bassford Jul 11 at 18:16
12

This problem is part of a larger class of informal problems called "dangling modifiers" or "misplaced modifiers."

When you wrote it, you were thinking that:

A) Mr. Lee is 70

B) Mr. Lee plays basketball

However, in the process of putting that into a sentence you moved the relative clause "who plays basketball..." so far away from "Mr. Lee" that the reader no longer quickly sees the intended connection.

As Jason Bassford pointed out above, if you'd provide another noun phrase by changing "70 years old" into a noun phrase "a 70-year old" the reader would connect those two nouns together; and as achAmháin pointed out, the dangling modifier can also be repaired by moving the modifier so that it attaches to the noun you originally intended it to modify.

This is also the source of humor in Groucho Marx's line:

"Colonel Saunders shot a tiger dressed in his pajamas."

Groucho's sentence, unlike yours, is constructed so that there's a noun which could in theory be modified by the participle "dressed", so the reader briefly attempts to picture that situation.

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  • 3
    The Groucho Marx line makes me think of the one immortalized by Disney's Mary Poppins, "I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith." youtube.com/watch?v=T9TrMNpUZM8 :) – laszlok Jul 11 at 16:59
0

There are several issues:

  • “Mr Lee” is additional, parenthetical information — it is not necessary for the complete thought about your neighbor (“My neighbor” is the subject).
  • You wish to convey two pieces of information about him, which should be conjoined with an “and”
    • he is 70 years old
    • he plays basketball every day
  • Style guides differ on when to spell out numbers, but a good rule of thumb when writing numbers is to spell them until it affects reading comprehension

My neighbor, Mr. Lee, is seventy years old and plays basketball every day.

This properly introduces your subject (“my neighbor”), gives additional information (his name and your relationship to him), and provides a predicate that connects (by contrast) two interesting pieces of information (even at an age people consider too advanced for hard and fast sports like basketball, he plays every day, suggesting also that he is in excellent health).

0

In this case, the word "is" marks a dividing line between the the subject and it's predicate. Once we have crossed this line it is too late to add additional supporting clauses to the subject. For example, the following would not work "Mary, my sister, is taking the dog for a walk, who likes carrots". To make this work, we must introduce the supporting clause "who likes carrots" before the predicate: "Mary, my sister, who likes carrots, is taking the dog for a walk".

The tricky thing with your sentence is that "is 70 years old" is not an obvious predicate. As a descriptor (as opposed to a definitive action like "is taking the dog for a walk") it may seem like just another supporting clause, but it's not. It is the predicate and supporting clauses introduced after the predicate are, in fact, too far from the subject. Your teacher is correct.

To fix this, we can either move the predicate to the end, after all of the subject's supporting clauses:

My neighbor Mr Lee, who plays basketball every day, is 70 years old.

Or make "is 70 years old" a supporting clause and "plays basketball everyday" the predicate:

My neighbor Mr Lee, who is 70 years old, plays basketball everyday.

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