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During the last few years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of shops, stores and supermarkets which provide facilities for self-service. Their general purpose is to provide goods of every description attractively and hygienically and in perfect condition, so that the customer can serve herself, and then pay for the goods with the minimum of delay.
(Found at http://www.myanmar-network.net/m/discussion?id=3423487%3ATopic%3A766166)

In the sentence, what does the word 'their' refer to, 'shops, stores and supermarkets' or 'facilities for self-service'?

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Their refers to "facilities for self-service", since it's those facilities that "provide goods of every description attractively and hygienically and in perfect condition".

Self-service facilities' general purpose is to provide goods of every description attractively and hygienically and in perfect condition

Although the shops, stores and supermarkets also provide this, the Law of Proximity would lead one to attribute it to self-service facilities.

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    I disagree with this – I think the "their" refers to the subject of the previous sentence. What if the prior sentence had said, During the last few years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of shops, stores and supermarkets which are painted purple. Their general purpose is to provide goods of every description attractively... – J.R. Jan 14 '17 at 11:52
  • I think if "their general purpose" changed to "the general purpose" it would be clearer. It's not "the increase of shops, stores, and supermarkets", it's the purpose of the "facilities" that the second sentence is referring to. – Peter Jan 14 '17 at 11:58
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    @Peter Then again, not all "facilities for self-service" would have the purpose as described in the second sentence. – Damkerng T. Jan 14 '17 at 12:51
  • I think with the additional text "so that the customer can serve herself", the meaning for "their" becomes obviously "facilities for self-service". – Peter Jan 14 '17 at 13:36
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    I agree with Peter. The latter sentence with their gives information referring to facilities for self-service. – SovereignSun Jul 4 '17 at 16:49
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We start by assuming that the antecedent of "their" is somewhere in the previous sentence. I've numbered the obvious referents for convenience:

During the last few years, there has been an enormous increase1 in the number2 of shops, stores and supermarkets4 which provide facilities for self-service5.

I'll explain the missing number 3 in a moment.

"Their" is plural. It does not refer to 1 or 2, since those two words are singular here.

The next available referent is the coordination shops, stores and supermarkets4. The final referent is facilities for self-service5. In this case, 5 is subordinate to 4. We treat "which provide facilities for self-service" as a modifier of "shops, stores and supermarkets".

I'm going to give this inclusive reference its own referent number:

During the last few years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of shops, stores and supermarkets which provide facilities for self-service3.  

As I parse this, the antecedent of "their" is 3: the entire phrase "shops, stores and supermarkets which provide facilities for self-service".

Since 1 and 2 are unavailable because they disagree in grammatical number, 3 is the first available antecedent for the pronoun in question.

4 and 5 are still available. We count the whole first, and then count the available parts within the whole. We count independent elements before subordinate elements.

If later context includes something that makes 3 nonsensical, we would consider 4 (all shops, stores and supermarkets -- regardless of self-service facilities) as the next option. Only if that becomes nonsensical should we consider 5 (all self-service facilities -- regardless of location).

As posted, the only context we have is the following sentence. Given that, referent 3 is sensible:

[The] general purpose [of shops, stores and supermarkets which provide facilities for self-service] is to provide goods of every description attractively and hygienically and in perfect condition, so that the customer can serve herself and then pay for the goods with the minimum of delay.

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