I am reading a textbook on statistics.

There is confusion about a paragraph in an exercise.

If the NCAA has applications from six universities for hosting its intercollegiate tennis championships in 1998 and 1999, in how many ways can they select the host for these championships

(a) if they are not both to be held at the same university;

(b) if they may both be held at the same university?

The pronoun "they" appears three times.

The second and third "they" refer to "these two championships".

But I am not sure what subject the first "they" refers to.

Does the first "they" refer to "six universities"or "applicarions"?

  • 1
    The first they would appear to refer to the NCAA in its role as the selector of the host for the championships, while the second and third theys refer to the championships themselves. Sep 4, 2018 at 10:21
  • But there is a pronoun "its". What does the pronoun "its" refer to? Sep 4, 2018 at 10:23
  • 1
    Its appears to refer to the NCAA. That's to say, the *intercollegiate tennis championships of the NCAA. Sep 4, 2018 at 10:29
  • Why do two pronouns "they" and "its" both refer to the same "The NCAA"? Is this a way better than "they" and "their"? Sep 4, 2018 at 10:32
  • 1
    The answer below picks up this point. That aside, native English speakers and writers frequently mix up their its and they/their in the same sentence. Radio and TV reporters and commentators are prime suspects. The fault is similar to the typical: One knows what's right but you can't help doing something else. Sep 4, 2018 at 10:45

1 Answer 1


The pronouns they and its both refer to NCAA, an association.

If I had to guess why its was used with its championships and they was used with the verb select, it's because "to select" is an action that requires human deliberation whereas the entity, the association, can lend its name to a "championship". Not to imply that this is any sort of grammatical rule; I'm just speculating on what might have been going on in the author's mind. Some speakers would be uncomfortable saying "In how many ways can it select..." or would be thinking of the people on the selection committee making the decision.

  • Using they for a collective entity in this way is normal in British English, but frowned on in American. I suspect that purists even in Britain would object ot its when they is being used of the same object; but Tᴚoɯɐuo exlanation of why it happens seems a good one to me.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 4, 2018 at 10:58
  • Is it possible that "its" refers to "the host"? Sep 4, 2018 at 11:22
  • 1
    @user9418: Not in this particular instance with the NCAA (since individual universities do not have any claim of possession on an intercollegiate tennis championship) but so-called cataphoric reference is possible. You could say The veterinarian considers its weight when determining the vaccine dosage a dog should receive, and there its would refer to a dog.
    – TimR
    Sep 4, 2018 at 11:38
  • Really appreciate your clear answers. Sep 4, 2018 at 11:43

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