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First, could you have a look at the following passage, focusing on the first sentence, especially the word "that" in block font?

The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; the drawing room, which received plenty of sun throughout the first half of the day, contained an ageing sofa as well as two snug armchairs, an antique sideboard and an oak bookcase filled with crumbling encyclopedias all of which I was convinced would win the approval of any visitor.

(Kazuo Ishiguro (2000): When We Were Orphans)

My question is: which word is the antecedent to the relative pronoun "that" here? That is, which word does the relative pronoun "that" refers back to? I have my own theory and I believe that I am correct. But my fellow English learners disagree. I'm afraid I don't know how to refute. In a way, the idea I have about my own question is just a gut feeling. I have no idea how to explain it logically. So I wanted some input from native speakers. Thank you.

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  • What is your theory?
    – KillingTime
    Jul 29, 2023 at 10:08
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    I guess you could argue whether that introduces a relative clause, or a clause giving result or consequence. But I don't see a real difference in meaning.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 29, 2023 at 10:10
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    Though you'd probably have to say that 'manner' is the antecedent, it is the [particular] tasteful manner in which 'my' landlady had furnished the place that 'evoked an unhurried Victorian past'. I second @Stuart's analysis. // To refer back to 'place', you'd need '... so that it now evoked an unhurried Victorian past' (with 'place' the antecedent of 'it'). // Compare 'The car was painted in a metallic paint that was hard to match' for an obvious 'proof' of referent. The original is perhaps a little fuzzy ('a manner' perhaps doesn't sit too comfortably with 'evoke'; 'a style', perhaps?) Jul 29, 2023 at 10:55
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    @Edwin Ashworth Thank you very much for your analysis. I thank Stuart as well. I think I understand. Now I'm inclined to explain this sentence to my fellow English learners by tentatively (perhaps clumsily) paraphrasing it in this way: "... my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner, and that particular manner evoked an unhurried Victorian past." This paraphrase seems to explain clearly, at least to me, although it may sound clumsy, the meaning of the sentence. Would you say that this paraphrase is inappropriate? Jul 29, 2023 at 11:06
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    To the "fellow English learners" who say the antecedent is "place": after it had been furnished in the manner described, the place might evoke an unhurried Victorian past, but it is the way the place has been furnished that is evocative. If it had been furnished in bauhaus style, it wouldn't evoke a Victorian past. But grammatically "place" cannot be the antecedent even if on a philosophical level you might argue that it's impossible to distinguish the place from its appearance. Jul 29, 2023 at 11:13

4 Answers 4

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Short answer:

The phrase tasteful manner is the antecedent for the integrated (or "restrictive") relative clause that evoked an unhurried Victorian past.

Full answer:

We usually use restrictive relative clauses to explain which thing or person we are talking about:

  • the elephant that you met yesterday ...
  • the man who's waving at you ...
  • the dog who bit me ...

In the examples above the phrase that you met yesterday explains which elephant we are talking about. The clause who's waving at you explains which man we are talking about. And who bit me tells us which dog we are discussing.

In theory, the relative clause in the Original Poster's example could be modifying the noun place. But it is not very likely that the narrator is using the relative clause to explain which place is being talked about. No other places have been mentioned. It is far more likely that the relative clause identifies what kind of 'tasteful manner' the narrator is talking about.

As a general rule of thumb, we like to put relative clauses directly after the noun phrase (or nominal) they refer to. In the example, the phrase in a tasteful manner comes between the noun place and the relative clause, meaning that the relative clause is very unlikely to refer to the noun place.


Grammar note

We can sometimes separate a relative clause from the noun it modifies and put it at the end of the sentence after the (rest of the) verb phrase. However, we can only do this if the verb phrase is very short and the relative clause is very long:

  • A man came in whom I had never seen before in my life.

In the example above the verb phrase came in is very short, and the relative clause whom I had never seen before in my life is very long. This is a very different kind of situation from the Original Poster's example

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It is not difficult to construct a sentence to a point similar and in which "place" or rather the NP "place in …" is the antecedent.

  • The landlord had proposed the place in Curzon street that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; (The landlord was able to let out several places in that street.)

This is all a matter of semantics: there is no meaning to be attached to a defining relative that would make precise which street it is; however, on the contrary, it makes much sense to consider "place", or fully, "place in Curzon street", to be the antecedent. In this sentence, the prepositional phrase headed by "in" is a postmodifier for the noun "place". In the roughly corresponding initial sentence, the prepositional phrase cannot be taken as a postmodifier of "place", and that is so because that would result in nonsense ("place in a tasteful manner", again, semantics), and, besides, it makes perfect sense to consider it as an adverbial of manner relative to the verb "to furnish". So, it is merely meaning that decides that only "manner" can be the antecedent.

What could be called the "complete" antecedent is "a tasteful manner", from a strict grammatical point of view. From the point of view of the textual context it can be said that "a tasteful manner in which the landlady had furnished the place" is the reason for the place evoking an unhurried Victorian past; however, note that this consideration does not enter into the grammar of the sentence as an adverbial of reason; neither can this be grammatically considered as an antecedent: generally speaking, a reason is an antecedent, but straying into this way of thinking we outreach the domain of grammar and step into that of text comprehension.

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  • Nice post. (The complete antecedent is tasteful manner not a tasteful manner. Reason is that the structure of the noun phrase is [[a] [tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past]], in other words the RC occurs within the nominal.) Jul 29, 2023 at 13:37
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. I fail to understand why the article should be excluded from the full antecedent; for instance the following alternate formulation includes it (grammatically correct even if perhaps somewhat odd): "The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner, a tasteful manner evoking an unhurried Victorian past;".
    – LPH
    Jul 29, 2023 at 14:10
  • The conventional wisdom is that a supplementary RC has the whole NP including determiner as antecedent, whereas a defining RC occurs within the nominal. Your example is exactly that, a supplement. [However, rephrasing doesn't really help too much in these matters anyhow]. Jul 29, 2023 at 14:16
  • This is an incomprehensible word salad. There is a simple answer, and the answer is that the pronoun refers to "tasteful manner".
    – BadZen
    Jul 29, 2023 at 14:34
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    @LPH You haven't read the article properly. The article says that the antecedent is determined by the indefinite article. In other words the antecedent is the nominal, and the nominal has a determiner, the word "a" [although, this is in itself rather an awkward way of putting it because the determiner "determines" not just the unmodified nominal, but actually the whole nominal including the relative clause! - Not a very high class article] Jul 29, 2023 at 15:06
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The questioner is finding it a challenge to explain the relative antecedent to fellow speakers of Japanese, so perhaps a haiku would help.

The bright cherry tree 
has been given a blossom 
that calls out to bees

Surely they would understand that it is the blossom, not the tree, calling out to the bees?

Let's enlarge the poem:

The bright cherry tree
has been given a blossom
in a tasteful manner
that calls out to bees.

If we take "tree" or the noun-phrase "The bright cherry tree" to be the antecedent of "that calls out to bees", there is no main verb. It is a sentence fragment, not unless we understand "has been given..." to be its verb. But the integrated relative clause "that calls out to bees" would never be separated from its antecedent by a verb phrase with an adverbial adjunct like "has been given a blossom in a tasteful manner". Here is how it would go if "cherry tree" is the antecedent to the integrated relative clause:

The bright cherry tree
that calls out to bees
has been given a blossom
in a tasteful manner.

Restrictive relative clauses want to glom onto the closest preceding noun in the clause structure. "The street with the tobacco shop that has big potholes" is intelligible (i.e. not ungrammatical) but discordant.

Once we add "in a tasteful manner", the word "blossom" is no longer the antecedent of the relative clause and "a tasteful manner" becomes the antecedent, unless "in a tasteful manner" is set off from the clause structure as a kind of parenthetical remark (in print that is represented with dashes which reflect the pauses that set the remark apart in speech):

The bright cherry tree
has been given a blossom
--in a tasteful manner--
that calls out to bees.

Parentheticals are like standalone clauses in their own right, with constituents deleted, and are set apart from the structure. You could paraphrase the above:

The bright cherry tree
has been given a blossom
([it was done] in a tasteful manner)
that calls out to bees. 

And then the closest preceding noun in the clause structure is "blossom": "a blossom that calls out to bees".

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  • But the verb call disambiguates there because tree is singular and the verb would thus have to be calls. Jul 29, 2023 at 12:00
  • But I don't think their issue is with grammatical number. But I can change it. Jul 29, 2023 at 12:02
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. I don't have points enough to let me comment on your answer, but I see no way for "that calls out to bees" to relate back to "bright cherry tree" as antecedent. I have never read or heard an integrated clause be interrupted like that, separated from its antecedent. Jul 29, 2023 at 12:09
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    I have fixed that for you. Jul 29, 2023 at 12:13
  • Anyhow, it's perfectly possible (and your sentence is okish). It's called Extraposition from Noun Phrase Movement. The main requirements are that the verb phrase is quite short and the relative clause (or other posthead dependent) that appears at the end must be "heavy", which means it must be long(ish). Consider, "The day came when I could no longer walk" or "That man came in that you saw yesterday" Jul 29, 2023 at 12:15
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My landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past.

Above, the pronoun "that" refers to "manner".

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    'There is a simple answer, and the answer is that the pronoun refers to "tasteful manner".' That is what you say in one of your comments, but simple or not, that answer has been given here before yours, which is nothing else than an almost word for word repetition.
    – LPH
    Jul 29, 2023 at 17:15

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