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In this sentence, the plural pronoun them is faulty because there's no plural noun for it to refer to. But if we replace them with it, would the result be ambiguous reference?


The relationship between a grammatical unit that refers to (or stands in for) another grammatical unit, usually a pronoun and a noun.

Ambiguous reference occurs when a pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent. Remote reference occurs when a pronoun is so far away from its antecedent that the relationship is unclear. Vague reference occurs when a pronoun refers to a word that is only implied, not stated.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
    (Dorothy Parker)

  • "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
    (Albert Einstein)

  • "An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over."
    (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814)

  • "It is harder to convince young people they 'can learn' when they are cordoned off by a society that isn't sure they really can."
    (Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation. Crown, 2005)

  • "The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum."
    (Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club. Putnam, 1989)

  • Ambiguous Pronoun Reference
    - "The school board had to decide whether to spend $186,000 to sponsor permanent residency for the foreign teachers or let them go back to the Philippines and start the search all over again.

    "They decided to do it, but not without debate."
    ("Creative Way to Find Teachers." Savannah Morning News, Oct. 17, 2011)

    - "If a baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it."
    (Department of Health, quoted by John Preston in "Speak Plainly: Are We Losing the War Against Jargon?" The Daily Telegraph [UK], March 28, 2014)

    - "Ambiguous pronoun reference occurs when pronouns such as 'he,' 'she,' 'it,' 'they,' 'this,' and 'that' don't refer clearly to one thing. Suppose a friend of yours made the claim that
    Teddie never argues with his father when he's drunk.
    As the claim is stated, you don't know who is drunk. Is it Teddie or his father? Amphiboly exists because the word 'he' is ambiguous. The sentence is poorly worded, and it's impossible to tell what it means."
    (George W. Rainbolt and Sandra L. Dwyer, Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument. Wadsworth, 2012)

    - "He started the car, put the heater on defrost and waited for the windshield to clear, feeling Marguerite's eyes on him. But when he finally turned to look at her, she was peering out the small patch of windshield that had defogged. 'I think it's going to clear,' she said.

    "Ambiguous pronoun reference, his mother piped up from the back, her first critical observation of the new day. Is she talking about the weather or the windshield?"
    (Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic. Knopf, 2009)

  • They as a Generic Pronoun
    - "No singular 3rd person pronoun in English is universally accepted as appropriate for referring to a human when you don't want to specify sex. . . . The pronoun most widely used in such cases is they, in a secondary sense that is interpreted semantically as singular."
    (R. Huddleston and G.K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

    - A person starts dying when they stop dreaming.

  • Back Reference and Forward Reference
    "In grammatical analysis, the term reference is often used to state a relationship of identity which exists between grammatical units, e.g. a pronoun 'refers' to a noun or noun phrase. When the reference is to an earlier part of the discourse, it may be called a 'back-reference' (or anaphora); correspondingly, reference to a later part of the discourse may be called 'forward-reference' (or cataphora)."
    (David Crystal, Dictionary of Linguistics. Blackwell, 1997)
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