text from textbook text from exercise book 1) “They are very happy to get lucky money from them.” In this sentence, “They” refers to ”children” while “them” refers to “parents”.

2) “They like different Chinese clothes.” In this sentence, “They” refers to “dad and mom” while in previous lines, it refers to Wendy and Bob.

Are there any personal pronoun reference errors in underlined parts in these 2 texts? Do they sound natural?

  • The cited text is almost certainly not written by a native speaker - "lucky money", for example, isn't a natural collocation for Anglophones. And we nearly always say mum/mom and dad, not dad and mum/mom. Jan 5, 2019 at 16:19
  • "Lucky money" looks reasonably parallel to "a lucky rabit's foot", @Fumble. It's a gift intended to ward off evil spirits and prevent the illness that they can cause. Jan 5, 2019 at 17:21
  • @GaryBotnovcan: True, but it's worth noting that Google Books claims 1160 hits for my lucky coin (completely parallel to lucky rabbit's foot), as against just 134 hits for my lucky money. And if you follow that second link I'm sure you'll agree that an awful lot of the hits are pretty obviously Chinese contexts. I think that plus the dad+mum reversal is convincing enough for my point. Jan 5, 2019 at 17:55
  • @FumbleFingers We would say “mom and dad” and “father and mother”, right? Jan 5, 2019 at 20:18
  • @user10871523: I don't know if my reasoning is correct, or if it applies beyond "Western Civilisation" (as exemplified by Anglophones), but I'd have thought the sequence mom/mum and dadarises more naturally for children, who see more of (and are more dependent on) the mother. Whereas father and mother fits better in the adult world. Jan 6, 2019 at 14:45

1 Answer 1


In formal prose, ambiguous referents of pronouns are to be avoided.

In informal writing and speech, ambiguous referents occur frequently. When such ambiguities arise, they cause no problem if context resolves the ambiguities.

In your first example, the context resolves the ambiguity.

In context, sensible people will interpret

They are very happy to get lucky money from them


The children are very happy to get lucky money from their parents

rather than

The parents are very happy to get lucky money from their children.

In your second example, context is not helpful in deciding whether the final "they" refers to children or parents.

There is a rule of interpretation or construction that says to choose the immediately preceding relevent referent, in this case the parents, but what that rule says may differ from what the speaker or writer intended. Moreover, a listener or reader may fail to apply what is a very technical canon of close construction if it is intended. It is best to avoid relying on the rule and to use the noun rather than the pronoun.

Their dad and mom are in Chinese clothes. The parents like different Chinese clothes<


Their dad and mom are in Chinese clothes. The children like different Chinese clothes<

These are admittedly awkward sentences, but they reduce ambiguity. There are various ways to put sentences together that are less awkward and will prevent any ambiguity.

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