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In some constructions, I can see that it leads to issues--referring to a word or phrase that comes before the word or phrase "which" or "who" directly precedes.

The mother of Gerald, whose parents had been poor, was tired.

Here, the unessential info could be attributed to Gerald instead of his mother, who it is actually about.

Gerald's mother, whose parents had been poor, was tired.

That issue does not exist in this construction.

In other cases, especially when there is context to help, it would be very difficult to misidentify the referent.

In these cases, are constructions in which the referent comes first, removed from the pronoun that refers to it, considered awkward, wrong, or bad?

For example:

They brought back with them a small cat from Egypt, who was shy but alert.

As opposed to:

They brought back with them a small cat, who was shy but alert, from Egypt.

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    Syntactically, it's true that the "unessential info" (having poor parents) could be attributed to Gerald, instead of his mother. But semantically / logically, that wouldn't make sense, since the mother is one of Gerald's parents. Thus there's no scope for ambiguity with that particular example, but there could be with, say, The uncle of Gerald, whose wife had died (where either the uncle, or Gerald himself, could be the widower). – FumbleFingers Aug 8 at 13:52
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There is nothing wrong with a construction such as

They brought back with them a small cat from Egypt, who was shy but alert.

(well except that some pedants would object to "who" being used for a cat, rather than a human.) One could regard the antecedent of "who" as the phrasal noun "a small cat from Egypt". In this construction there is no plausible confusion, as "Egypt" would not be described as "shy but alert".

In the earlier example

The mother of Gerald, whose parents had been poor, was tired.

There is ambiguity, and the construction is in any case awkward and should be avoided.

In general a relative pronoun can have an antecedent that does not come immediately before the pronoun, provided that the intended meaning is clear. When the construction is ambiguous, it should normally be recast to avoid ambiguity (unless the ambiguity is intended, but a learner should avoid that).

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