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An excerpt from this article:

Such solutions all take quantum states to be objective properties of the physical system they describe and not as catalogs of personal judgments about those physical systems made by each individual user of quantum mechanics.

What is the italic part referring to, 'catalogs of personal judgments' or 'physical systems'? Is there a rule to judge such a relation grammatically?

2 Answers 2

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The phrase in italics modifies "personal judgments" (not including "catalogs of").

The rule for determining what a relative clause should modify is the closest noun that fits the grammar and semantics. Higher level speakers do this without thinking, so the process I describe isn't something to learn how to do well, but just a temporary tool to help you work out the meaning until you realize you can do it without thinking.

In this case, possible target nouns include "systems", "judgments", "catalogs", "system", "properties", "states" and "solutions", in that order of preference.

We compare each noun in order in its full context until we find one that makes sense:

...systems made by each individual user of quantum mechanics.

The grammar here is good, but the semantics are bad because it means that each user of quantum mechanics makes physical systems, which is nonsense. Next!

...judgments... made by each individual user of quantum mechanics.

The grammar here is also good, and the semantics work because it's reasonable to say each individual user of quantum mechanics makes personal judgments about those physical systems. Also, "make" collocates with "judgment", so we have our winner.

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The phrase made by each individual user of quantum mechanics modifies the term judgments.

In the active voice, judgments would be the direct object of the verb "make." A way to rewrite your excerpt in the active voice without changing the meaning would be as follows:

Individual users of quantum mechanics make their own judgments about quantum states, and these judgments are taken as objective fact by the solutions previously mentioned.

So, when you change from active to passive:

Individual users make judgments

turns into

Judgments are made by individual users

and changing from the finite form "are made" back to the past participle (note that it's still passive) gives you the original

judgments (about those physical systems) made by each individual user (of quantum mechanics)

So, the adjective "personal," and the two phrases "about those physical systems" and "made by each individual user of quantum mechanics" all modify the same word "judgments." The prepositional phrase "of judgments" modifies the noun "catalogs," which is being used here to mean a collection of something.

It is at least theoretically possible that made could instead modify the word catalogs instead of judgments - that seems less likely, but would not significantly affect the meaning of the excerpt as a whole. The difference between "a collection made by the user of their own judgments" and "a collection of judgments made by the user" is stylistic, not semantic, but I believe the version where "made" modifies "judgments" is better style.

It is not possible for the italic part to refer to "physical systems," because that would mean that "each individual user" makes "the physical system," which would imply that the observer creates their own version of reality.


You ask, "Is there a rule to judge such relations grammatically?" Generally, modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the word they modify. Looking at your excerpt, the phrase that starts with "made" is much closer to "judgments" (or even to "catalogs") than it is to "physical system."

If (and this is not the case!) the author intended the phrase to modify "physical system," the excerpt should have been written like this instead:

Such solutions all take quantum states to be objective properties of the physical system they describe made by each individual user of quantum mechanics, and not as catalogs of personal judgments about those physical systems.

This keeps the modifier closer to its noun.

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