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What does the possesive determinant (its) refer to in the following sentence , The thief returned the painting back to Italy (its) rightful home . I think (its) refers to Italy .. Any thoughts on that guys ?

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I think your teacher is right after all. Try to replace (its) in your sentence (I added the comma):

Original sentence:

The thief returned the painting back to Italy, (its) rightful home.

Weird sentence:

The thief returned the painting back to Italy, Italy's rightful home.

Correct sentence (same meaning as the original):

The thief returned the painting back to Italy, the painting's rightful home.

Clearly they mean to say the painting's home is Italy (and not Italy's home is Italy). Therefore, its refers back to the painting.

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