2

Consider these sentences:

John and Bill met at the airport. He invited him to his home.

One cannot make out who invited whom. However:

John and Mary met at the airport. He invited her to his home.

Here, we can tell who invited whom. But this is because we "know" that Mary is a woman's name. Is it really correct to use pronouns this way?

  • this way which way? Please expand. Which particular point is striking you? – Mistu4u Feb 8 '13 at 5:33
  • What do you mean? Is the question not clear from the example? – user448 Feb 8 '13 at 6:01
  • In fact, that's the only time pronouns should be used. – Jim Feb 8 '13 at 6:03
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    My previous comment refers to your title. Use them in cases where no confusion arises, do not use them where it could cause confusion. – Jim Feb 8 '13 at 6:58
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    @Ming Xiu: You asked whether it's "correct". Assuming by that you mean "is it grammatically valid?", any answers that actually address the question can only say "Yes". But in practice everyone wants to give writing advice, because the "correct" answer seems so trivial. – FumbleFingers Feb 8 '13 at 13:54
3

You're right that the first sentences are unclear because the pronouns have no clear antecedent. Were the sentences "John met Bill at the airport. He invited him to his home.", the order of the pronouns would allow the reader to make the correct inference that John invited Bill, but it would take more time than if the sentences were written as

John met Bill at the airport. John invited him to his home. [Clear but poor style]
John met Bill at the airport and invited him to his home. [Clear and better style]

There is only one meaningful rule for this situation: Avoid ambiguity and facilitate ease of understanding. If a pronoun has multiple possible antecedents, make clear who or what the pronoun's antecedent is. Don't force readers to waste their time inferring what it is based on some apocryphal and idiosyncratic ad hoc rule based on "the order of introduction": There is no such rule.

John, Bill, and Tom met at the airport. He invited the two of them to his home.

Were there a rule based on the order of introduction, it would be instantly clear that John did the inviting and that Bill and Tom were invited to go to John's home. But it's not at all clear that this is the case. It would be clearer if the sentence were:

John met Bill and Tom at the airport. He invited the two of them to his home.

Still, for the sake of clarity and ease of understanding, these sentences are better if rendered as:

John met Bill and Tom at the airport. John invited the two of them to his home.

or

John met Bill and Tom at the airport and invited the two of them to his home.

  • Is your first example really poor style? Is there anything wrong with using two sentences instead of one? – kiamlaluno Feb 8 '13 at 8:26
  • @kiamlaluno: When the sentences are short, yes, the probability that the style is less than optimal is high. However, it's also possible that the writer wants two short simple sentences instead of one longer compound sentence. Everything depends on context. The compound sentence reads better, but for beginners in EFL/ESL classes, the two simple sentences may be easier to understand. It's still poor style in most instances. Short simple sentences sound staccato when read. That may be the writer's goal. If so, then it may be good style. Have I said before that almost everything's relative? – user264 Feb 8 '13 at 8:45
  • I can understand preferable, but poor style seems excessive. Saying that who is learning English should use longer sentences, when native speakers are probably going to write shorter sentences, seems a contradiction. It is rather probable that who is learning will write shorter sentences. Notice that my native language is Italian, where I am allowed to write longer sentences. When I did the same with English, I was said to write shorter sentences. (The suggestion was also said from an American friend of mine.) – kiamlaluno Feb 8 '13 at 12:25
  • @kiamlaluno: When one's learning English, it's best to use short sentences. When one's fluent, it's best to use short, medium, & long sentences in every paragraph. Good writing combines all lengths. An academic paper should theoretically use a sentence with a mean of 22 words (Flesch readability), but that's not always possible: it depends on how dense the material is & how complex the ideas are. Educated readers prefer mixed-length sentences. The uneducated & non-fluent prefer shorter sentences. Understandable: Short sentences are easier to comprehend. – user264 Feb 8 '13 at 12:37
  • Good writing flows & allows the reader to easily absorb what it says; bad writing jumps & jerks (or plods like a dying ox) & calls attention to itself. Repeating words for no reason is poor style. Just because most native speakers aren't good writers doesn't mean we shouldn't teach non-natives how to write well. There are some principles that can be learned & looked for in good writing. Knowing when to apply those principles isn't easy. Being able to edit your own writing isn't easy either. When you can do both, you're on the road to becoming a good writer. There are other criteria, of course. – user264 Feb 8 '13 at 12:46
-1

Actually in the example you cited, both are unambiguous in Standard English. When there is an ambiguity, pronouns follow the order of introduction in the previous sentence, if it makes sense to do so.

John and Bill met at the airport. He invited him to his home.

Is a slightly confusing way of saying that John invited Bill to his home (and never the reverse). It is valid (but confusing) because "John" is the first noun in the first sentence, and this matches gender and location to the "he" in the second sentence. Note that when the order is violated by making one of the pronouns unexpected and explicit, the sentence becomes invalid:

John and Bill met at the airport. He invited Bill to his home

Is valid,

John and Bill met at the airport. He invited John to his home.

Is not.

In the case where you wanted to say that Bill invited John to his home, you would need to disambiguate:

John and Bill met at the airport. Bill invited John to his home.

(Note that the "his" in the second sentence again refers to Bill).

There is no such confusion when the pronouns are different:

Bill met Mary at the airport. He invited her back to his house

(Mary was invited to Bill's house)

Bill met Mary at the airport. She invited him back to her house.

(Bill was invited to Mary's house).

Confusions arise when nouns are introduced not all in the same sentence.

Bill travelled to New York on Tuesday. David travelled there on Wednesday. On Thursday, he invited him for drinks.

Is another example of an ambiguous (and hence wrong) sentence.


My advice, however, is that when the sentence becomes complicated it's always better to err on the side of caution, and to be explicit avoiding pronouns.

  • I agree it's confusing and better stated explicitly, but according to your rule about order of introduction, wouldn't "Bill, John and David met at the airport. He invited them back to his house." mean that Bill invited John and David back to Bill's house? So, confusing, but not ambiguous? – Jim Feb 8 '13 at 6:00
  • What if you say "He was invited by him to his house", then who invited whom? and to whose house? – user448 Feb 8 '13 at 6:08
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    Where does this "rule" about order of introduction come from? It's new to me. Seems ad hoc. What I was taught & what seems logical & reasonable is here: Pronouns must have clear antecedents & multiple antecedents create ambiguity & confusion. "John and Bill met at the airport. He invited Bill to his home." is invalid: it'd be valid were the first S "John met Bill at..." because then the structures of the two Ss would be parallel & good style. They aren't parallel; they're bad style. Both are grammatical non-idiomatic English. The next one's invalid too. – user264 Feb 8 '13 at 6:17
  • @Jim: I suppose so, but you'd have to construct the sentence were constructed thus: "Bill met John and David at the airport. He invited them back to his house." – Matt Feb 8 '13 at 6:28

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