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Let's imagine a situation in which there are two males in a room, and we read:

John laid his hand on his shoulder.

It's clear that John is not laying his hand on his own shoulder but on that of the other male he's dealing with. Still, I'd like to know whether this kind of sentence is frowned at by some, or if it's perfectly fine. I know that most of the time the second pronoun can be avoided, like:

John laid his hand on Tim's shoulder.

or

John laid his hand on the orphan's shoulder. (assuming Tim is an orphan and we don't want to repeat the name we already wrote in the previous sentence)

But in some cases, I just would like to write a plain "his". Does it sound so bad?

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    "It's clear that John is not laying his hand on his own shoulder but on that of the other male he's dealing with" - without context it's absolutely not clear to me. – Maciej Stachowski Aug 1 '18 at 10:05
  • Imagine we know the context, I just added "Let's imagine a situation in which there are two males in a room, and we read:" – Fra Aug 1 '18 at 10:12
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    makes it no less confusing. – Tetsujin Aug 1 '18 at 10:13
  • What if there are three or more men in the room? Whose shoulder is it then? It's best to always specify. – Jason Bassford Aug 1 '18 at 10:16
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    Context is everything: John laid his hand on his shoulder-tabs; I earned these the hard way, he said. – Ronald Sole Aug 1 '18 at 15:42
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Take it further...

"John laid his hand on his shoulder, then scratched his beard & put on his coat. Then he left, taking his lunch with him"

That's several more levels of confusion & perception/speculation is going wild. ;)
Does Tim have a beard? Will Tim's coat fit John? Is Tim going to go hungry now it appears John has stolen his lunch?... or was that John's beard, coat, lunch & shoulder?... or was it Tim's lunch, John's coat & beard, the orphan's shoulder...?

Best to refer to Tim, or the orphan, to save confusion.

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Actually, it's not clear that John didn't lay his hand on his own shoulder.

You can assume that if that had been the intended meaning, the author would have used "his own" rather than just "his." But that would still just be an assumption.

As a standalone sentence, without any other context, it's certainly ambiguous.

Most likely, if it were placed within a larger paragraph, the surrounding text would make it clear what actually happened. But it would still cause momentary confusion before being cleared up.

If you want to be precise, you need to use precise wording. I believe that most editors would clarify the sentence.

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Although I think Jason and Tetsujin make a good point that there is potential for ambiguity in the pattern, with the verb lay and in the absence of the word own, most native speakers would gravitate towards the meaning that John placed his hand on the shoulder of another person. John wasn't doing the macarena.

So, if you're writing a story, the pattern is fine. No need to go overboard with specificity. But if you're an attorney cross-examining a witness, you might want to get the witness to be clearer. Do you mean that John placed his hand on his own shoulder?

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