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Passage excerpt from a TOEFL question:

"... These laws are universal in their application, regardless of cultural beliefs, geography, or climate. If pots have no bottoms or have large openings in their sides, they could hardly be considered containers in any traditional sense. Since the laws of physics, not some arbitrary decision, have determined the general form of applied-art objects, they follow basic patterns, so much so that functional forms can vary only within certain limits."

The word "they" in the passage refers to:

  1. applied-art objects
  2. the laws of physics
  3. containers
  4. the sides of pots

According to this site, the correct answer is:

  1. follow basic patterns => applied-art objects

I would like to know why the correct answer to that question is No.1

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Aug 2 '17 at 13:30

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

  • 1
    A rule often trotted out is to look for the nearest noun group that makes sense, and take that as the antecedent. 'Since John was stung on the leg by a bee, it has been quite sore.' leg. / But with 'Since John met Paul, he has been a lot happier', I'd take 'John' as the antecedent (paralleling subject nouns). / Here, the wording is clumsy, but 'the laws of physics' must be discounted on grounds of logic. Antecedents may appear in previous sentences, so your excerpt is inadequate. "We will now consider the general shapes that containers are made in." would make a big difference. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '17 at 11:22
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you for your thorough explanation. I have added more details in the passage excerpt to increase coherence. Would this make any difference when answering the question? – Sean N. Aug 2 '17 at 12:09
  • I'd dock a mark from someone offering this in an essay for not disambiguating clearly. If pressed, I'd guess at 'applied-art objects' being the intended antecedent. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '17 at 12:51
  • I agree with @EdwinAshworth. The author trots out a string of words, and is inarticulate. Stop struggling, and read something better. "Pots without bottoms or which have holes are useless as containers". – Weather Vane Oct 10 '17 at 19:55
  • Damnit, why don't users quote the entire passage!? The "excerpt" now makes sense. – Mari-Lou A Dec 28 '17 at 1:53

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