tiger cub in the car <which> he bought

SurfNut

New Member
Chinese
After decades of using English, I never got around to trying to resolve this puzzle until now. The following headline appeared in today's dailymail.co.uk.

California man, 18, is caught trying to drive over the Mexican border with a Bengal tiger cub in the car which he bought for $300 in Tijuana
In this example, 'which' clearly refers to the tiger. I believe I have seen in other sentences the 'which' refers to the car instead. What gives?

Also, how does a comma before the which alter the referencing?
 
  • PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    In this example, 'which' clearly refers to the tiger.
    How do you know?
    (PS - It being obvious is not the answer...)

    The question of the comma and the which is that normally which is preceded by a comma and introduces a non-defining clause; that introduces a defining clause and is not preceded by a comma.

    The cat, which belongs to my neighbour, is in the garden
    The cat that belongs to my neighbour is playing in the garden with the cat that I own.
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It's ambiguous, and just adding a comma would make no difference to that. Short of rewriting it to improve the syntax, one way to make the sentence clear would be to move "in the car" to the end (enclosing "which he bought for $300 in Tijuana" in commas).

    As it stands, though, the price is a bit of a giveaway that actually the tiger is meant, not the car.
     

    MilkyBarKid

    Senior Member
    British English
    " how does a comma before the which alter the referencing?" : a 'which' clause should always be preceded by a comma. A 'that' clause should not.
    Since 'which' clauses contain additional, non-essential information, why does the reporter force it into the opening sentence?

    California man, 18, is caught trying to drive over the Mexican border with a Bengal tiger cub in the car. The cub, (which he) bought for $300 in Tijuana, has been given to the San Diego Zoo.
     

    SurfNut

    New Member
    Chinese
    Wow, I never expected the answers to return so soon! :) So, apparently, DM, as usual again, was trying to get the most mileage out of the headline. The thing I learned in this case is that the 'which' does not necessarily refer to the tiger.

    Thank you.
     

    SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    And yet the headline works, in that we are unlikely to interpret that "which" means "the car."

    What this shows is that the "rule" (or "norm") which links restrictive relative clauses with "that" and non-restrictive with "which" is not written in stone. In fact, it is precisely because of "which" that we cognitively understand that "which" means "Bengal tiger cub." If you use "that" (... caught trying to drive over the Mexican border with a Bengal tiger cub in the car that he bought for $300 in Tijuana) then there'd be little doubt that what he bought in Tijuana was "the car."

    In any event, this type of writing is typical of journalism: a headline that packs a lot of information and which is meant to be read without many pauses. Of course, you can always rewrite the sentence in a number of ways, as has been shown.
     
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