6

I was writing a title in which, I need to mention two men and a woman. But the context made me think twice. I am finding an unambiguous way to tell it in the Title.

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that he's the best husband

The confusion arises as Nick is married! Who's 'he' in the sentence now? I want to say that Nick told the girlfriend that go, marry Arnold, he's the best husband.

In the given title, there are chances that people think that Nick is bragging about himself taunting that no matter what, Arnold cannot be a better husband than him! Just in a friendly way...no offense. They all are friend...good friends in fact.

  • 3
    Out of interest, how does your language deal with this ambiguity? – Wilson Aug 30 '18 at 13:08
  • Aww...just thinking and not getting rid of ambiguity there as well! This was shocking! @Wilson – Maulik V Aug 30 '18 at 16:58
  • 1
    As shown in the answers, we either avoid using an ambiguous pronoun, or allow the context and common sense to clarify it. – Barmar Aug 30 '18 at 18:03
  • Actually, I think that there is no ambiguity in this case because Arnold is not a husband, and therefore cannot be the "best husband" referred to, so the only way to read it is that Nick is talking about himself. If you reword the sentence to allow "he" to possibly refer to Arnold, repetition of the name is probably the best way to avoid pronominal ambiguity: "Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that Arnold would be the best husband for her." – Hellion Aug 30 '18 at 19:13
17

One way to deal with the inherent ambiguity of a pronoun is to use a direct quote instead of an indirect quote. So, if Nick is talking about Arnold, you’d write:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend, “He’s the best husband.”

but if Nick is bragging about himself, we put something different inside the quotation marks:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend, “I’m the best husband.”

If you don’t want to use a direct quote, you can also use the person's name in place of the pronoun:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend that Arnold is the best husband.

As a footnote, if Arnold and his girlfriend aren’t married yet, then Nick should be using a modal verb:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend that Arnold would be the best husband.

  • 2
    +1 This is basically what I was writing :) I was thinking he would make the best husband, though I can't articulate the difference. – Em. Aug 30 '18 at 8:29
  • 1
    @Em. - I agree that would make is an even better version. – J.R. Aug 30 '18 at 8:31
  • Hey...@Em. would make... fits perfect! JR, +1! :) – Maulik V Aug 30 '18 at 9:03
3

It's because Arnold's girlfriend has no name that you're in this mess.

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that he himself had made dinner.

Nick made dinner.

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that Arnold had made dinner.

If we use he there, it's ambiguous.

If we know the girlfriend's name:

Nick told Jane that her boyfriend Arnold had made dinner.

  • How does the girlfriend's name make a difference? Nick told her that her boyfriend Arnold had made dinner. – Barmar Aug 30 '18 at 15:48
  • @Barmar: Well, since the original question was about ambiguity: we don't know if her refers to the same person in your sentence. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 30 '18 at 16:52
  • You don't know that in your sentence, either. Suppose Jane asks Nick, "What happened to Mary last night?". Your last sentence could be the answer to that, and "her" refers to Mary. – Barmar Aug 30 '18 at 18:01
  • @Barmar: I agree. My sentences are less ambiguous than the OP's but still ambiguous. But that's why I mentioned using the name. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 30 '18 at 18:15
  • But the question is about disambiguating "he". Disambiguating "her" is a separate problem that you created yourself, since that word didn't even appear in the original sentence. – Barmar Aug 30 '18 at 18:26
-3

Grammatically, it's not perfect to refer with a pronoun to a person, not mentioned directly (e. g. 'Arnold's girlfriend' is not much different from 'Arnold's finger'). Here's a similar usage example considered incorrect:

Mark called Mary's house all day, but she never answered the phone.

http://webapps.towson.edu/ows/proref.htm

And the correction suggested there (despite 'she' couldn't point at Mark and the sense is clear enough):

Mark called Mary's house all day, but Mary never answered the phone.

So in your case, where the problem is not only in Nick, it would be (as already recommended):

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that Arnold would make the best husband.

  • 1
    This is a rather peculiar interpretation For instanceWikipedia says "Almost any syntactic category can serve as the antecedent". The problem with your interpretation here is that the example sentence is not ambiguous, as he would have to refer to Nick because Arnold is disqualified by your interpretation. – MSalters Aug 30 '18 at 15:11
  • This is not my personal interpretation and the source I've quoted is not something unique. The fact the example from it is not ambiguous just makes it a fair 'survival phrase' but not a correct one. Wikipedia doesn't suggest wrong examples illustrating the almost conclusive quote from it. Here's another source, with explanation why a personal pronoun can't refer to a possessive noun: the latter functions like an adjective. chompchomp.com/terms/pronounreference.htm (topic: A possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.) – Alex_ander Aug 31 '18 at 11:17
  • That too shows falwed logic. E.g. it argues against Kevin's fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna based on the fact that it breaks down when you replace "Kevin" with "Agile". Guess what? All sentences with antecedent break down if you remove the person to which the antecedent refers, no matter the context in which that person appears. – MSalters Sep 2 '18 at 22:16
  • A sentence with a non-possessive antecedent won't break down if you replace that antecedent with the same part of speech (i. e. any noun meaning a male person). It will change its meaning but will remain grammatically correct (unlike in case of replacing a possessive noun with an adjective). That educated person is Ms. Robin L. Simmons, a professor of Valencia College in Orlando, FL. Her easily googled example with Kevin's finger (I came across it a couple of years ago) seems to become popular: – Alex_ander Sep 3 '18 at 9:54
  • some other authors use it in their educational materials (e. g. this paper by Missouri University of Science and Technology grad.mst.edu/media/administrative/grad/documents/… ). However, that point of view (it exists since 1960s) looks to be considered too sophisticated and is not generally accepted. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Possessive_antecedent _ nytimes.com/2003/06/01/weekinreview/… – Alex_ander Sep 3 '18 at 9:54

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