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Then he noticed the woman, who'd helped him earlier, gently holding a baby in her arms, both shaking.

(A sentence from my workbook)

Does this sentence work well? What (or who) does "both" refer to: arms, the woman, baby, or writer?

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You can't decide this grammatically, you can only decide this pragmatically. That is you need to use your common knowledge and common sense.

You are qualified to do this - it doesn't require any special skills in English. What makes more sense in the context of the whole story? Which would you find unsurprising? Which is rather ridiculous?

  1. The woman and the baby were both shaking.

  2. The woman's left and right arms were both shaking.

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    Actually, I think you need to apply Grice's four maxims of conversation, not just What makes more sense in context? Logically, since they're all "physically connected" it's incredibly likely that the two arms and the baby will all shake even if the mother is only applying muscle power to one arm (or if the mother isn't making any effort, and the baby is causing the shaking. So we have to ask why the speaker would bother to mention both shaking. A likely reason being that both mother and baby are contributing motive power. Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 16:52
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    ...but as you say, it doesn't require any special skills in English to decide that. The Gricean maxims are language-independent. Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 16:54
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    I agree with you, although I also think the sentence is kind of badly written because it's clearer to put a phrase near what it modifies, and here arms is awkwardly stuck in between (woman holding baby) and (both shaking).
    – stangdon
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 17:15
  • @stangdon: It often happens that querents here are saddled with poor quality example text (often written by non-native Anglophones to save money, I suspect). Because I personally wouldn't have included the commas offsetting who'd helped him earlier, I just threw those words at Google Books. I wasn't surprised to find that not one of the 11 instances returned has those commas. Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 17:21
  • @FumbleFingers Thanks and you are right that work books are usually not written by native speakers. That's why I ask firstly if the sentence works well.
    – ForOU
    Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 0:38

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