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what does "when" refer to in the following sentence: "this problem" or "stock market crash"? (emphasis added)

This problem had already surfaced several months before the stock market crash, when commercial banks with deposits of more than $80 million suspended payments.

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    "When" is a temporal preposition here denoting a point in time, which I'd say here is "several months before the stock market crash". – BillJ Aug 3 '16 at 19:56
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    Take note of that all-important comma before when. Noting that a restrictive clause is not offset with commas, if that comma were missing then when would refer to the time of the stock market crash, not several months before. But this is just an almost meaningless aspect of orthography. In real spoken language you can tell the difference because there's no pause between the relevant noun and the restrictive clause providing additional information identifying that specific crash. – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '16 at 23:21
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    "When" is clearly anaphoric here; the antecedent is the same whether the when- clause is integrated (restrictive) or supplementary (non-restrictive). The meaning is commercial banks with deposits of more than $80 million suspended payments several months before the stock market crash. – BillJ Aug 4 '16 at 6:36
  • FumbleFingers, BillJ: Such good answers, why are they only comments? – djna Aug 4 '16 at 8:02
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This problem had already surfaced several months before the stock market crash, [when commercial banks with deposits of more than $80 million suspended payments].

"When" is clearly anaphoric here since it is the relativised element in the bracketed relative clause. It gets its meaning from the antecedent, the preceding noun phrase, "several months before the stock market crash". "When" is adjunct (adverbial) of time within the relative clause.

We understand that 'commercial banks with deposits of more than $80 million suspended payments several months before the stock market crash'.

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When refers to the time when the commercial banks suspended payments.

This time was several months before the stock market crash.

The payment suspension was evidence of the the problem. We don't actually see here exactly what the problem is, but the implication is that a well-informed person can determine that there is an issue when the banks suspended payments.

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