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The man saw the woman who is bringing the telescope.

If "who" is with the woman, does this always mean the woman is being referred to, or it can also refer to the man, even though the "who" is mentioned later? Meaning can it also mean the man is bringing the telescope?

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    Precisely because you've got the words who is there, "bringing the telescope" can only refer to the immediately-preceding noun (the woman). But those words are actually "optional" - and if you don't include them, The man saw the woman bringing the telescope is in principle ambiguous. Although in practice the intended meaning would probably be that it's the woman bringing the telescope, syntactically speaking it could be the man - who saw some woman while he [the man] was bringing the telescope. Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 17:23
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    Side point, but you've got a verb tense mismatch. You have "saw", past tense, and "is bringing", present tense. It should either be "The man sees the woman who is bringing the telescope" or "The man saw the woman who was bringing the telescope." Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 14:42
  • @DarrelHoffman - There is no verb tense issue. [Last night] the man saw the woman who is bringing the telescope [to our party tomorrow night]. Once the bracketed items are inferred via context, everything makes sense.
    – EllieK
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 12:46

3 Answers 3

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Lambie's answer correctly presents the prescriptive rule that's taught in grade schools, and with your sentence, the prescriptive rule happens to agree with how native speakers would interpret that sentence out of context; but it's important to be aware that in real English, there's more flexibility than that answer claims. For example, it's not hard to find examples like this one:

Presently a man came by who was a stranger to that neighborhood and […] [link]

where the relative clause "who was a stranger […]" modifies the subject "a man", even though the predicate "came by" appears between them, or like this one:

[…] she lowers her standards and lets a man into her life who is beneath who she is, […] [link]

where the relative clause "who is beneath […]" modifies the direct object "a man", even though it immediately follows the noun phrase "her life".

I don't think most readers would bat an eye at sentences like these; they sound perfectly natural, and make perfect sense.

But these sentences only work because it's very obvious which noun phrase the relative clause is modifying: there's only one candidate that's even remotely plausible. With your sentence, by contrast, unless the context gives a very compelling reason to understand the relative clause as modifying "the man" rather than "the woman", I feel confident in saying that all readers would understand it as modifying "the woman". In fact, even if the context does give a compelling reason to understand it as modifying "the man", I think there's a good chance that readers would understand it as modifying "the woman" anyway, and would just be confused.

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    "The man who is bringing the telescope saw the woman" is unambiguous. It is therefore logical that "the man saw the woman who is bringing the telescope" means something different - otherwise, how would you express the two different meanings?
    – alephzero
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 3:11
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    @alephzero: True, but language doesn't generally obey that sort of logic. It can sometimes be tricky to unambiguously express the different readings of an ambiguous sentence. (FWIW, though, if the OP's sentence were truly unclear in a given context — which would surprise me, but I've been surprised before — you could probably disambiguate in favor of the usual reading by replacing "the man" with "he": "He saw the woman who is bringing the telescope".)
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 6:21
  • Such a wonderful explanation, it covers a lot of cases. Thank you. In "he saw the woman who was bringing the telescope", why can't the "who" here refer to the "he", I don't see any difference between "the man" and "he". Please help me understand. And, what topic of grammar should I read to understand these kinds of things?
    – alu
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 4:33
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    @alu: Re: the difference between "the man" and "he": It's just that "he who" usually means "anyone who" rather than "the person who", and in your sentence that wouldn't make sense.
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 4:48
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    @alu: If you have or can get access to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, it discusses this in a section titled "Postposing of relative clause" (in chapter 12, section 4.3, page 1066). If not, then -- this is a bit of a niche topic, but some of the Google hits for postposed relative clause look promising.
    – ruakh
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 6:49
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The antecedent to a who relative clause is always what precedes it.

There cannot be a space filled by other words between the who clause and the antecedent to which is refers.

For example: The man I saw walking his dog in the street who was also on a leash.

The man saw /the woman who is bringing the telescope/

VERSUS

The man /who is bringing the telescope/ saw the woman.

Two different meanings.

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  • Okay so the sentence mentioned above means the man saw a woman and she was bringing a telescope? That's for sure?
    – alu
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 14:46
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    Yes, but it is not a. The man saw a woman is not the same meaning.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 14:55
  • Okay, thank you. I'll wait for a second opinion and then if confirmed I'll accept your answer
    – alu
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 14:56
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    @alu what may have given you doubts is that many writers mangle the order of their sentences, sometimes enough to make them meaningless. The correct solution is as Lambie says.
    – mdewey
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 15:05
  • It specifies which woman the man saw (the one carrying a telescope). Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 15:25
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It is a long time since I did any quantificational logic but if I remember correctly the proposition could be expressed as

There is an m Such that m is a man AND There is a w Such that w is a woman AND There is a t Such that t is a telescope AND m saw w AND w is bringing t

∃mMm & ∃wWw & ∃tTt & Saw(m,w) & Bringing(w,t)

Do I have that right?

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  • LOL - Downvoted already ! I thought it was an informative contribution. I will leave :)
    – Hugh Jones
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 9:49
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    The problem is, though your answer might be informative, it won’t help any non-native speakers with the problem in the question. Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 10:51
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    The English language sentence is about a specific man and woman whereas your expression just states that there is at least one man and at least one woman and so on which is subtly different
    – mdewey
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 16:54

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