I love when my students send me an email with a doubt in the sentence that they read at wsj or nytimes or any other reputable source. Why do I love it – since I see them understand the meaning of these sentences while they apply the grammatical rules that they learn in the e-GMAT course. This is the essence of learning SC skills. So lets discuss one of such doubts that was recently sent to me:
Sentence – courtesy wsj
The planned closing of Israel’s nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
According to me, which would generally refer to the noun directly in front of it. However, here it seems that which is modifying the planned closing nuclear plant. Can you please explain how I can use WHICH in general?
The main focus of the sentence is on the planned closing of Israel’s nuclear plant. It makes logical sense to say that this “planned closing” was reported in Israeli media. Thus, logically it makes sense for “which” to refer to “the planned closing”.
Is “which modifier” used in grammatically correct form. The answer is “YES IT IS”. Here “which modifier” is construed to modify this entire noun phrase – The planned closing of Israel’s nuclear plant near Dimona this month. And this is perfectly correct. Remember noun modifiers modify closest nouns, but they can also modify slightly far away noun when context requires and when this slightly far away noun is the head of the complete noun phrase. The only other thing to keep in mind is that there should not be any ambiguity in the meaning. Lets check how all these conditions apply to this sentence:
1: Context requirement – As we saw above, it makes logical sense for “which” to refer to “planned closing”.
2: Modified entity is Head of Noun Phrase – The noun phrase is – the planned closing of Israel’s nuclear plant near Dimona this month. The “which modifier” modifies the head of this noun phrase “the planned closing”. Notice how “Israel’s nuclear plant” modifies the “planned closing”. “Near Dimona” in turn modifies nuclear plant. “This month” goes back to modifying “the planned closing”. So you can picture the hierarchy of the modifiers as follows:
the planned closing of Israel’s nuclear plant near Dimona this month
Both green and purple modifiers modify the head of the noun phrase – planned closing.
3: Ambiguity – The closest noun is “month”. It does not make any sense for “which modifier” to modify “month”. Month was reported in Israeli media. This makes no logical sense. Lets go further left into the noun phrase – “which” cannot modify Dimona as well. Likewise, nuclear plant was not reported in Israeli media – it was the closing of this plant that was reported in the media. Thus, as you can see, there are no two possible logical meanings here and hence there is no scope of ambiguity.
Thus, as it stands, the “which” modifier here correctly modifies “the planned closing”.
Noun Modifiers typically modify closest nouns. But they can also modify slightly far away nouns if the following conditions are satisfied
- Context requires that noun modifier modifies slightly far away noun.
- Slightly far away noun is the head of the noun phrase. So here is the construction – Modified Noun – Noun Phrase – Noun Modifier.
- There is no ambiguity in the meaning of the sentence.
The above concepts are covered in following concepts/courses
- SC Course – Concept File titled “Modifiers – Relative Pronouns”.
- Verbal Live Sessions – “Modifiers 1 Session”
If you come across any other sentence in which you have doubts about modifier reference, feel free to post the sentence, its reference, and your doubt in the comments below. And we will respond at the earliest possible.
Continue to put your logical hat on as you read and understand sentences.