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I was speaking with my housemate and he said "A friend of mine and I who used to play were walking together."

We both realized this sentence was weird. It seems to me that "a friend of mine who used to play" should be a unit in itself, so how does "and I" end up smack dab in the middle of it? It was understood by both me and the speaker that he did not mean that both he and his friend had played. So what gives?

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  • From the context, I can understand what the sentence is saying but as a native Canadian English speaker I find the sentence ungrammatical. I'd need to say "my friend who I used to play with and I were walking together." But other dialects of English might have no trouble. If this is the case for you, I'm guessing it has something to do with traces. That might be a good place for you to start exploring.
    – acattle
    Nov 24 '13 at 5:16
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A relative clause, like who used to play, doesn't necessarily come immediately after its antecedent (the word it refers back to), like a friend of mine. The preferred position is immediately after, but there can be intervening factors. However, if the intervening words make the connection between antecedent and relative clause too unclear, the sentence should be recast.

In this case, apparently the pair a friend of mine and I are felt to be a unit so strongly connected that it overrides the preferred position of the relative clause, as viewed intuitively by your housemate when his brain constructed the sentence.

Without context, it sounds almost ungrammatical to me, but I can understand how it would work if you knew more about what to expect about the people in the sentence and their activities. Context is very important in determining how far away antecedent and relative clause can be, and what kind of intervening phrases are allowed in between.

Let me give you a simple example of a relative clause that is moved away from its antecedent but is still perfectly easy to understand and grammatical:

I visited the new King of Spain in Madrid, who was a devout Catholic and a great supporter of the Church.

It is clear that who must refer to the new King of Spain and not to Madrid, because context tells us Madrid is not a person.

Lazy as she was, she strayed from the prescribed waking order: she awoke Kermit only after me, who then screamed in a tongue I did not know.

Even in this odd situation, it seems clear from context that who... refers only to Kermit, not to me, because people usually don't scream together upon waking up, and because it seems unlikely that I should scream in a tongue I did not know. But in a specific context, anything is possible, I suppose.

My uncle and my cousins, who were in the bedroom, would all be conscripted as soon as the officer arrived.

Who were in the bedroom: just my cousins, or also my uncle? This is completely ambiguous to me.

[My uncle and my father were fighting in the garden. I knew my father was wrong about this.] My uncle and my cousins, who were in the bedroom, would all be conscripted as soon as the officer arrived.

Here who must refer only to my cousins, because my uncle was in the garden.

[All children had been told to join their fathers.] My uncle and my cousins, who were in the bedroom, would all be conscripted as soon as the officer arrived.

Here who most probably refers to all three, because all children are with their fathers.

Context is key. No utterance has a complete meaning without context, nor even a complete structure, most of the time.

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  • The key concept missing from this answer is "extraposition". Relative clauses are often extraposed. Many of the examples in the answer contain extraposed relative clauses. Nov 27 '13 at 18:52
  • Furthermore, the original sentence in the question allows an analysis that has the entire coordinated subject NP as the antecedent to the relative pronoun. On this analysis, the only thing that is unusual about the sentence is the position of "together". If one adds another "together", the sentence is perfect: "A friend of mine and I, who used to play together, were walking together". The oddness of the original is probably due to the forced sharing of the sentence-final "together". Nov 27 '13 at 18:57
  • @TimOsborne: The OP says the speaker and his audience clearly understood only the first half of the subject phrase to be the antecedent. So that is what's unusual about it. Why would you disregard this bit of information? As to "extraposition", why don't you explain a little bit more what you mean by that, and how it is different from the construction I described?
    – Cerberus
    Nov 27 '13 at 20:05
  • I think the speaker and his audience forced that interpretation on the example after the fact. The sentence was produced and then upon analysis, something didn't seem right. An NP such "a friend of mine who used to play" is odd from the outset (since we all used to play as children), whereas an NP such as "a friend of mine and I, who used to play together" is quite natural. Concerning extraposition, see here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraposition . Nov 27 '13 at 21:04
  • I am not really disagreeing with your answer when I mention extraposition. I simply want to point out that the answer becomes clearer and easier to verify and understand if you use an established notion of syntax for orientation with your examples. Nov 27 '13 at 21:08

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