The following sentence is from a mock test. (The original that the test passage is the article Advertisements: The Pros and Cons.)

Money spent on advertising is money well spent. It assists a rapid distribution of goods at reasonable price.

What I am confused about is what does "it" refer to?

  1. Money spent on advertising
  2. Advertising

My opinion is 'Advertising'. But my tutor's is "Money spent on advertising."

What is the correct answer?

Note that in the actual article, the sentence is

Money spent on advertising is money well spent. Thus, it is a good idea to spend money on advertising.. Advertising assists a rapid distribution of goods at reasonable prices.

  • 3
    You say that this sentence is from the article "Advertisement: The Pros and Cons." But the site reads different: Advertising assists a rapid distribution of goods at reasonable prices. which makes this quite easy to understand :)
    – Usernew
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 13:43
  • 2
    "It" refers to "Money spent on advertising"
    – user13267
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 14:24
  • 1
    /To what does x refer / or /What does x refer to/ are the right ways to say it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 14:36
  • 1
    I've always thought of these as "dangling pronouns" (or "dangling referents"), akin to dangling modifiers and dangling participles, though Google doesn't have much support for my usage. (One site calls them "unclear pronoun references".)
    – R.M.
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 22:11

4 Answers 4


Money spent on advertising is money well spent. It assists a rapid dustribution of goods at reasonable price.

It is a pronoun and takes the place of a noun.

Spent on advertising modifies the noun money. So it technically refers to money, but I don't think it's really incorrect to include associated modifiers when talking about what a pronoun points to, so you can say that it refers to money spent on advertising.

It does not refer to advertising because that is part of the phrase describing which kind of money.

  • I think it does.
    – Usernew
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 13:49
  • 1
    While I agree that "it" is more likely to refer to "money [spent on advertising]", "advertising" is also a noun, and there's no reason that "it" cannot be refer to that noun instead...
    – psmears
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 14:09
  • Yeah, my alter ego below is making a good case for the antecedent to be "advertising." He may be right.
    – LawrenceC
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 15:23
  • 1
    Consider Lemon added to oil makes a good dressing. It is rather bland without an acid like citrus or vinegar. It often represents a previously mentioned noun or noun phrase, and can be ambiguous which, depending on context, connotation, and logic, not necessarily what "modifies" what. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 18:15
  • @LawrenceC: This is the correct answer. Given the first sentence a sentence that follows beginning with 'It' necessarily refers to Money spent on advertising as per your statement. The problem here is that the author of the article has used 'It' incorrectly, wanting it to refer to 'advertising' when it actually doesn't.
    – reor
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 19:53

The syntax of the two sentences you quoted allows several possibilities for what "it" means. "It" could mean the money itself, money spent on advertising, a metonymic reference to the advertising, or even the entire first sentence. We need to look more closely at the content of the sentences to see whether what they mean matches any of these possibilities.

Here's a fuller quote from your link (emphasis, mine):

Money spent on advertising is money well spent. It assists a rapid distribution of goods at reasonable prices. It draws attention to new ideas and so helps enormously to raise standards of living. By helping to increase the demands of goods, it increases the number of workers needed to supply the goods and, therefore, provides employment. It helps to pay for many services. Without advertisements, your daily newspaper would cost a lot, the price of your television licence would need to be doubled, and travel by bus would cost more.

An important cue in relation to which noun a pronoun refers is the subject of the previous sentence. In this case, the subject is "money spent on advertising". It would be a natural 'first guess', but is far from conclusive. In my previous sentence, for example, "It" refers to "the subject" or "money spent on advertising" from the sentence before, but that sentence's subject is "this case". But in context, "this case" is not a "natural 'first guess'". A more important cue, then, is the primary focus of the previous sentence. If that focus is not immediately clear, use nearby sentences to help disambiguate, especially sentences within the same train of thought.

We now return to the extended quote. The context sounds odd if "it" was money. Money doesn't assist distribution at reasonable prices (put another way, paying more for the same advertising doesn't improve distribution at all); money doesn't draw attention to new ideas; etc.

Most clearly, though, the last sentence of the quoted paragraph refers explicitly to advertisements. The style of the paragraph strongly suggests that each sentence is talking about the same thing - each reference to "it" refers to the same idea. Hence the mention of advertisements in the last sentence as its main idea strongly suggests what it refers to in the previous sentences.

Looking at the content of the last two sentences confirms the suggestion that "it" refers to "advertising:

  • It helps to pay for many services.

  • Without advertising, [many services] would cost more.

So I'd agree with you that in your quote, "it" refers to "advertising", not "money".

  • Money spent on advertising can indirectly assist distribution, but only because the advertising it pays for can do so (also indirectly, of course). So I think it's not wrong to say that "it" could be "money spent on advertising", it's just that the advertising itself is a better referent. On the other hand it might be that the tutor is just looking at the example for "the subject of the previous sentence" without regard for the wider context.
    – armb
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 16:26
  • This is a reasonable, even quite compelling case, but it could still refer to money, money spent on advertising, or advertising, even though advertising is the subject of that later sentence. A relevant question is: Does it matter? Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 18:24
  • @armb Regarding your first two sentences - yes, that's why I said it could be rationalised as a metonymic reference to advertising. On the tutor's intention - it would be a poor example; the link is tenuous between money spent on advertising and reasonably priced assistance. Put another way, paying for advertising doesn't help make the price reasonable.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 22:38
  • @JimReynolds I'd agree that the syntax can be interpreted any of those ways. As I commented to armb, though, the content strongly suggests only one of them. I'm not sure where you're heading with the last part of your comment - it matters to the extent that anything on this site does - it helps learners of English to improve their understanding of some aspect of the language. It would also seem to matter to the OP, who has a difference of opinion with their tutor and would benefit from a reasoned case one way or the other.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 22:47
  • I've incorporated the reflections from the above comments into my answer.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 23:15

Grammatically speaking, it would normally refer to 'money spent on advertising'. However, it is clear from the questions and answers below the article you linked to that they intended it to refer to advertising.

(1) Advertisements can assist _ _ _ _ _ of goods at reasonable prices.

I would argue that the paragraph should be rewritten and the 'it' in

It assists a rapid dustribution of goods at reasonable price.

be replaced with 'advertising'. The subsequent sentences could continue to use 'it' and everything would be much more clear.

  • I'd argue that it's nor clear, and that whether it could be better written is irrelevant to the question. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 18:27
  • "It's nor clear" Ok, gotcha
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 20:05

What I am confused about is what does "it" refer to?


It confuses you, and that is something you DON'T want to do to your reader, on a test or otherwise.

To an untrained eye, the pronoun reference is unclear and confusing; the antecedent can be taken as either the money or advertising. Sure, in context with the test questions, explaining It, there's no problem; however, even in the test and alone the second sentence shouldn't be using the indefinite pronoun to begin with. Incompetent administrators.

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