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# Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused

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Senior Manager
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Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused [#permalink]

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04 Sep 2008, 19:12
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I was wondering if somebody can explain a grammar concept to me. I don't fully understand when a pronoun has an ambiguous reference and when it is unambiguous.

Example 1:
A proposal has been made to trim the horns from rhinoceroses to discourage poachers; the question is whether tourists will continue to visit game parks and see rhinoceroses after their horns are trimmed.
-> Here "their" is ambiguous and you aren't sure whether it refers to tourists or rhinoceroses

Example 2:
A majority of the international journalists surveyed view nuclear power stations as unsafe at present but think that they will be or could be made sufficiently safe in the future.
-> Here "they" unambiguously refers to stations. Why? Isn't it also ambiguous since the sentence has two possible antecedents - journalists and stations? I know that logically it wouldn't refer to journalists, but structurally I think that it can. Even if you shortened the sentence to "A majority of journalists... view.. but think that they...." The journalists could be thinking about themselves or about power stations.

I can't figure out what the appropriate rule for pronoun reference is. If there are two subjects in the sentence.. will a pronoun always be ambiguous? Does the pronoun always refer to the closest subject? If a sentence has a singular and a plural subject and the pronoun is singular, then the pronoun unambiguously refers to the singular subject?

Thanks!
If you have any questions
New!
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Re: Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused [#permalink]

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05 Sep 2008, 09:08
foodstamp,

it must always be clear what or who the pronoun is referring to. It doesn't matter where the pronoun or the noun is referring in the sentence (the pronoun does not necessarily modifies the closest noun)

Consider:
Tom and Jim went to the club after he took a shower
Who took a shower? Since you have two nouns, it's impossible to know which one.

If, in the other hand, you have a plural noun and a singular noun and you use a singular pronoun to refer back to the singular noun, your sentence will be correct, since it is clear who are you talking about.

In the first example you provided, the sentence has 2 plural nouns (rhinos and tourists), therefore, you can't use a plural pronoun, because it will not be clear who are you talking about, regardless if it's obvious or not (not even a 6th grader will think that tourists have horns).

In the second example, majority and power stations are plural, thus, you can't use they (again, it doesn't matter if power stations think or not).

Also note that pronouns that refer back to a a possessive noun are incorrect. Consider:
John's mom wants him to clean his room.
Him is incorrect because there is no reference for John, only for John's mom.

Hope this makes sense.

I would think you would benefit from reading MGMAT's SC guide. Good luck!
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Re: Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused [#permalink]

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05 Sep 2008, 09:27
[quote="asdert"

In the second example, majority and power stations are plural, thus, you can't use they (again, it doesn't matter if power stations think or not).

[/quote]

What do you mean by one cannot use they to refer to a plural noun?

Good discussion!

Foodstamp,

My 2 cents. The word majority can be singular or plural and in this case as it is clearly referring to X number of the IJ, it is indeed plural.

A majority of the international journalists surveyed view nuclear power stations as unsafe at present but think that they will be or could be made sufficiently safe in the future.

When you read this sentence, stop at the word think. Its kind of saying that the majority of IJ think. Logically the meaning has been conveyed about who is thinking. apparently PS cant think. Hence they can only refer back to power stations.

A little touchy. But the good thing about the Q you posted is "they" is in all answer choices. (one less thing to worry). Good that you noticed it and pulled it out.
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Re: Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused [#permalink]

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05 Sep 2008, 09:39
What's the source of the question?

I still think that 'they' is ambiguous. Or would you say the plural pronoun in the first example is clear just because tourists are not supposed to have horns? Back to the second, what if you are talking about some special AI power station that thinks by itself?

I'm just hoping this is an OG question so that we can have an official explanation, just like we have an official explanation for the first example.
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Re: Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused [#permalink]

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05 Sep 2008, 18:10
Unfortunately I don't remember where I got example 2 from but the answer said that "they" is not ambiguous in this case. I know all the basic rules regarding pronouns but I think that when identifying AMBIGUOUS pronouns you largely have to rely on context. Even if you see two subjects in a sentence followed by a pronoun, it doesn't necessarily mean that the pronoun is ambiguous.

In example 2, "they" is not ambiguous because of the context. The sentence states that journalists view stations as unsafe BUT think that they could be safe in the future. This contrast makes it clear who "they" is referring to. So I think that it is just sentence construction that makes the pronoun unambiguous in this case.
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Re: Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused [#permalink]

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05 Sep 2008, 22:10
I don't want to come across as stubborn, but I doubt this is official material. I found the second example on the web and it turns out it's from the SC1000 set, but I have no clue were they took it from.

Here's what Ron Purewal, a 99%ile MGMAT tutor has to say about it http://www.manhattangmat.com/forums/post4371.html.

I can see why D (without the pronoun ambiguity) is the best of all 5, but it still has the same problem the OG defines as incorrect in other similar questions.
Re: Ambiguous Pronouns - a bit confused   [#permalink] 05 Sep 2008, 22:10
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