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Two troublesome noun phrases:

A "automobiles as they existed in the 1950s"
B "automobiles as they relate to people"

The first noun phrase seems to be complete in and of itself, because "as they existed in the 1950s" deals exclusives with "automobiles" and does not seem to refer to anything outside of the phrase.
But the second noun phrase seems to be incomplete, because "as they relate to people" appears needing to refer to something else outside the phrase.

The incompleteness of noun phrase B stands out even more when both phrases are used in a complete sentence:

1 He described automobiles as they existed in the 1950s.
2 He described automobiles as they relate to people.

In sentence 1, "he described" does not appear to be modified by the "as they existed in the 1950s", because "as they existed in the 1950s" gives information about some intrinsic property of automobiles.
Yet in sentence 2, "as they relate to people" appears to modify "he described" by showing the manner of "describing".

In another word, "as they existed in the 1950s" in sentence 1 seems to be contained completely within the noun phrase "automobiles as they existed in the 1950s". But, "as they relate to people" in sentence 2 seems to be spill outside the noun phrase "automobiles as they relate to people" and modifies "he describes".
Does anyone think that noun phrase B is, by itself, incomplete?

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  • Nope, nothing wrong with it at all.
    – user8543
    Jul 15 '14 at 14:30
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    If I look at these examples as they relate to pragmatics, I don't really see much difference. #1 requires us to restrict our concept of automobiles to those which existed in the 50s (not as they are today, for example). By the same token, #2 invites us to focus on those aspects of automobiles which are significant to people (we're not considering their relationship with roadkill, for example). Jul 15 '14 at 14:37
  • @FumbleFingers But regarding the noun phrases, is phrase B not as self-contained as phrase A?
    – meatie
    Jul 15 '14 at 14:43
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    @meatie: I'm not clear what you mean by "self-contained". Bear in mind cars as they existed in the 50s isn't quite the same as cars that existed then. The former (and cars as they relate to people) is a rather loose "abstract noun phrase" denoting a tightly-defined topic of conversation. Superficially you might think you can use that in the first example without really changing the meaning. But if you try that with the second example (cars that relate to people), you should be able to see a glaring difference that isn't really about "completeness, being self-contained". Jul 15 '14 at 14:54
  • @FumbleFingers So, what does "automobiles as they relate to people" mean, if "as they" cannot be replaced by "that"?
    – meatie
    Jul 16 '14 at 2:47
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To begin with, you are wrong in supposing that as they existed in the 1950s necessarily refers to an “intrinsic property”. Exist embraces both intrinsic and extrinsic properties; indeed, a very prominent school of modern philosophy holds that human essence is a mere epiphenomenon of existence.

Both as they existed in the 1950s and as they relate to people are restrictions not on actual automobiles but on the topic automobiles—automobiles as a topic of discussion, if you like. As they existed in the 1950s excludes as they existed in the 1940s and as they existed in the 1960s, and so forth, but ignores other possible restrictions, such as the sociological as they relate to people. Likewise, as they relate to people excludes as they relate to the environment and as they relate to the economy and even (as FumbleFingers mentions) as they relate to roadkill, but ignores historical restrictions.

Note, by the way, that it is possible to incorporate both of these restrictions in your sentence:

He described automobiles as they related to people in the 1950s.

In all these cases the as clause selects a broader or narrower aspect of the global topic automobiles as the topic for immediate discussion.

We might treat any topic the same way. We might, for instance, discuss you, meatie, as a child: meatie as he existed umpty-years ago, excluding your subsequent schooling and girlfriends and job history. Or we might discuss your role on this site: meatie as he relates to ELL, excluding your relationships with family and friends and co-workers and fellow-citizens.

As for the suggestion that as they relate to people modifies described: I raised this question on ELU and no one seemed to grasp what we were talking about. I have since come to the tentative conclusion that the as clause is a sort of secondary object-oriented complement to the verb discuss. Discuss is not modified by the as clause; rather, discuss licences and elicits this qualification of automobiles.

It may be that as they relate to people does not in fact work that way, and someone will come up with a better description. But however it works, as they existed in the 1950s works the same way.

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  • Is "automobiles as they relate to people" closer to "automobiles" or "automobiles' relation to people"?
    – meatie
    Jul 16 '14 at 2:39
  • @Meatie "automobiles in their relation to people" Jul 16 '14 at 10:19

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