a. He tore off the page of the book on which I had written my name.

I'd assume that I had written my name on the page. Is that correct?


b. He tore off the first page of the book, on which I had written my name.

I think this sentence is ambiguous. One can't tell if I had written my name on the page or on the book. Is that correct?


c. He was petting that kitten of the cat that I had bought.

I think this would most likely mean I had bought the cat, but there is a slight possibility that I had bought the kitten (if the cat had been mentioned before). Is that correct?


We have 'of-possessives' in all cases and then a noun is being modified. The rule seems to be that the noun that is closest to the modifying phrase is the one that is being modified. I don't think the 'rule' (if indeed there is such a rule) applies in all cases. Hence the question. I think in some cases there might be ambiguity.


1 Answer 1


You're right that there is no rule that a relative clause always refers to the closest noun before it, but it prefers* to modify the closest noun.

Before we get into it, it's worth noting that none of this is related to "of"-possessives -- it applies to any sentence where there's more than one candidate noun for a relative clause to modify.

Sometimes, it cannot refer to the closest noun:

He took the book about Martha Stewart, [on which I'd written my name].

Here, the relative clause (the part in brackets [ ] ) cannot modify the closest noun, "Martha Stewart", because "which" refers to things, and not people, so it unambiguously refers to the book.

In sentence b., the relative clause can refer to either the page or the book. It would prefer to modify "book" because it's closer, but semantically, it's more natural to write something on a page in a book, rather than on the book itself, so the sentence is ambiguous.

Also, yes, in sentence c., the relative clause could technically refer to the kitten in some convoluted context where the cat has been mentioned, it's clear that I bought a kitten from that cat, and I did not buy the cat itself.

* "prefers" is probably not the correct ESL jargon term, but I think you know what I mean

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