Grammar Wednesday

Ambiguous Pronoun Reference Edition!

I taught this lesson in my grammar class yesterday, and I was genuinely surprised by how many students just didn’t get it. Take this sentence, for example:

Rico called Fred when he was in Seattle.

When I asked my students what was wrong with that, they all – every last one of the 10 kids in the room (okay, nine; Steven, you’ll remember, wasn’t playing along) – said that there was nothing wrong with it. When I asked them who was in Seattle, they all said that Fred was – they were certain of it; there was no question. Then, I gave them this sentence:

I listened to Jan’s plan and Freida’s argument against it and decided I agreed with her.

Again, they all agreed that the pronoun referent was Freida – the last noun mentioned before the pronoun. Testing a theory, I gave them this sentence:

Carl told his father he was too old to be a cub scout.

They all agreed that the referent for “he” is Carl, but I argued that, using their prior logic, the referent would be “father” because it is the last noun mentioned before the pronoun. That stopped them – they had no good response to this. In the somewhat stunned silence that followed, one of the students came to the conclusion that perhaps their reasoning was flawed.

It’s important for pronoun referents to be clear. In the first sentence, we don’t know who’s in Seattle – Rico could be vacationing in Seattle, calling Fred, his roommate at home in Boise, to see if the new television was delivered; or it could be Fred who’s in Seattle calling Rico in Tacoma to say he’s dropping in for a surprise visit. We’ve got to know who’s where before we can write this sentence in a way that makes clear sense. Ditto for the second example – which am I agreeing with, Jan’s plan or Frieda’s argument against it?

I kind of like the idea of Dad being told by his little son to act his age and stop trying to muscle in on Carl’s play dates, though….

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

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7 Comments

Filed under Grammar

7 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Rebecca

    Mrs. Chili,

    This is interesting. Every student engaged in the discussion AGREED on what the pronoun referant rules would be for each example.

    And, not one chuckle from the “too old to be a cub scout” example?

  2. Ooh, this is great. I use sentences like these in my classes where we discuss language, ambiguity and computing. Ambiguity is not good for computers! LOL.

  3. Cree avoids the ambiguity of these sentences by morphologically marking 3rd person as either proximate or obviative: the subject most salient to the discussion is marked proximate, and all other subjects are marked obviative. In Cree, the sentence “Rico called Fred when he was in Seattle” would not be ambiguous; if “he” referred to Rico, then both “Rico” and “he” would be marked proximate and “Fred” would be obviative. If “he” referred to “Fred”, then both “Fred” and “he” would be marked proximate and “Rico” would be obviative. (The general idea is right, but I’m probably getting some details wrong.)

    Ambiguity is rife in language. Many English adjective+noun combinations are ambiguous: they can be either intersective or appositive, as explained here: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004165.html

  4. Yeah, I would have argued that Dad was indeed too old to be a cub scout…..that’s hilarious.

  5. My students don’t see anything wrong with these kinds of sentences, either, and they look at me as if I’m speaking Greek when I try to explain it to them.

  6. Great grammar lesson. I may steal your examples for use in my own classroom this year…. and thanks for the laugh with the last one.

  7. this is a lesson i’ve often done including drawings. pronoun ambiguity is fun when you give them ambiguous sentences and ask them to draw them out. then you show them a drawing with the other meaning. i have fun with it, and the kids tend to also. 🙂

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