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What does the word it refer to in the following sentence? Does it refer to the missing plane or the act of the search?

The focus of the search has moved several hundred miles west of the course it should have been following.

The sentence above is from the following paragraph:

Vietnam is scaling back its air and sea search for missing flight MH370 as China said it will step up its search and rescue efforts to include land areas.While Vietnam's deputy transport minister said it was suspending search and rescue operations, China said it will add two planes to its search for the missing passenger jet and its 239 passengers and crew. The focus of the search has moved several hundred miles west of the course it should have been following.

(Source)

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  • @MaulikV How? That is asking an entirely different question! – starsplusplus Mar 13 '14 at 10:04
  • @starsplusplus The OP has asked this question in several forms each time asking every bit of it (I think some of them are already voted and closed). The OP should rather post this whole sentence and ask to paraphrase it. Click on the profile and check out the bunch of recent questions. – Maulik V Mar 13 '14 at 10:13
  • @MaulikV Asking multiple questions about the same source text is not asking duplicate questions if the questions are different. In fact we encourage people to ask a separate question per question. I've already voted on some of the others, but I think this question is fairly clear and certainly not a duplicate of the one you linked. – starsplusplus Mar 13 '14 at 10:21
  • @starsplusplus Asking multiple questions about the same source text is okay but asking the meaning of the same sentence in several forms is duplicate! Did you check the profile and the recent questions? Still, I'll be happy if you answer them all with a different view. – Maulik V Mar 13 '14 at 10:25
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    I looked, carefully. What I see is someone trying to understand subtle nuances. That is not the same thing as repeating questions already posed. – Jolenealaska Mar 13 '14 at 10:35
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Grammatically, "it" could refer to either the plane or "the focus of the search". But in context it is surely intended to refer to the plane. Presumably they were originally searching for the downed plane along the course that the plane was supposed to have followed. When it wasn't found there -- or when there was some reason to believe that the plane was off course (I don't know the details of this story) -- the search moved to some other place, some place "west of the course the plane should have been following".

One can easily think of a slightly different context where "it" would refer to the search. Like, "Due to faulty communications, the focus of the search was moved west of the course that it should have been following."

The nature of English -- I'd guess of all human languages -- is that to understand the meaning of a sentence, you often have to combine comprehension of the full context and some common sense with a rigid parsing of the grammar. (Like if someone said, "Sally entered the room with her cat. She said, 'We're back!'" I assume "she" here refers to "Sally" and not the cat because cats can't speak English. But if this was in a children's story where the animals talk, my interpretation might change.)

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Here, 'It' clearly refers to the missing plane.

The sentence states, the search is conducted some miles west to the course it should have been following which means,

The plane should have been flying towards a particular direction (Course it follows) and some miles west to that the search is conducted.

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