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One of my friends wrote the following sentence on his wechat moment(like facebook):

The problem with being competitive and running with a friend is that you may find yourself at their mercy as to when to stop.

I could not understand the meaning and structure of the sentence.

1, what is the subject of the sentence? Is it 'The problem'?

2, What does the pronoun 'their' represent?

I looked up the dictionary and found the meaning of 'at someone's mercy' is under the control of someone and without defense against someone. But I still could not understand the meaning of the whole sentence.

3, What is the actual meaning that my friend wants to express?

4, what is the structure of 'The problem with being competitive and running with a friend' in the sentence?

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    The subject is "the problem". their means your friend: you may find yourself at your friend's mercy. – JavaLatte Mar 16 '17 at 8:09
  • what is the meaning of the sentence want to express? – Henry Wang Mar 16 '17 at 8:10
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    The subject in full is the noun phrase "The problem with being competitive and running with a friend", in which the head word is the noun "problem" which has the preposition phrase "with being competitive and running with a friend" as complement. The pro-form "their" refers to "a friend" ("their" is a gender-neutral pronoun here). Your understanding of the meaning is pretty good; you may have to stop when your friend wants to stop, or when it's best for them, not when you want to. – BillJ Mar 16 '17 at 9:35
  • I take it the speaker expects to tire before the friend does, but a competitive nature demands that the speaker keep running in spite of exhaustion if the friend does not sense the speaker's exhaustion and mercifully decides to stop, or simply decides to ignore it. The problem with running with a friend, when you are competitive, is that you may find yourself at your friend's mercy regarding when to stop. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 16 '17 at 10:29
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The subject is the noun phrase "the problem with being competitive and running with a friend". The main verb is is.

The genitive pronoun their refers to the friend with whom one might be running. It's not an ambiguous antecedent (the term for a pronoun which could refer to more than one noun), because there's nothing there for it to refer to apart from that friend. "Running" is another noun, but that would take the pronoun "it", genitive "its". The same applies to "problem".

The overall meaning is that, when one is competitive and runs with a friend, one will generally (due to being competitive) not want to stop until they stop. Thus, it will be their decision when to stop (short of either person collapsing) - you are at their mercy because they take the decision, and that decision could be bad for you. A recurring joke is the case of two competitive friends running together and running faster and faster, further and further, because neither of them wants to be the one who says they've had enough.

The noun phrase "the problem with being competitive and running with a friend" has the head noun "problem". It refers to there being a problem, and that problem occurs when the condition after "with" is fulfilled. That condition is "being competitive and running with a friend", so the condition is fulfilled when both those elements are true. If you are competitive, and run with a friend, this problem will occur. The nature of the problem forms the other part of the overall sentence.

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