This is from part of a text in an English learners’ textbook published in Japan.

I am Shusei Yamada, a photojournalist. I drove around the world with an eco-friendly car named “Vasco-5.” The car runs on vegetable oil. It carries a machine which makes biodiesel fuel. That machine can make used vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel. There were two purposes of this adventure. One purpose was to examine how far I could go with only waste oil. The other purpose was to communicate with people around the world about biodiesel fuel. Before beginning my journey, I was worried about one thing. I was not sure that Vasco-5 could use all kinds of vegetable oils in the world. But some people say the only way to learn is “by doing.” So, I started my journey in Tokyo on December 5th, 2007. My first city was Vancouver, Canada. I asked for waste oil in many places. At first, my requests were often refused. That was because people did not know about biodiesel fuel. I was very disappointed. However, after people heard about my project, they started bringing me waste oil. A month later, I left for the US. Many people helped me on mu journey. Some people sent e-mails to their friends about my project. They were waiting for me with waste oil.

What does “They” in bold in the extract refer to? Some people or their friends? Both seem to be correct. If the word refers to Some people, it means they sent e-mails and waited for the man with waste oil for him. On the other hand, if it refers to their friends, it means they were waiting for him with waste oil because they received e-mails from their friends (i.e. “Some people” in the extract).

Which do you think is more correct?

  • 1
    Can you lengthen the quote to provide more context? As it is, it is ambiguous.
    – kandyman
    Nov 27, 2018 at 12:53
  • 1
    "They" refers to the people waiting with waste oil. These persons may have sent the email or received it, there is no distinction in the text. "They" include all the people interested in helping him with oil. They may have sent the email, received it or read about it in a newspaper or in a blog.
    – RubioRic
    Nov 27, 2018 at 13:19

1 Answer 1


In my opinion, "they" is somewhat ambiguous in this sentence, but it is possible to infer the meaning.

As you point out, you can make an argument that 'they' refers to the people who sent emails or the people who received emails. It could also be referring to both at the same time (i.e. one large group which subsumes both those who sent emails and those who received emails). In that case, you could argue that "they" refers to the "many people" who helped him on his journey. After all, it wouldn't make much sense to say that only the people who sent emails showed up, or that only the people who received emails showed up. So I think it is reasonable to infer that 'they' refers to one collective group of people who helped (with this group containing both those who sent and received emails).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .