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While going through this website I came across the following sentence under 'Indirect Object':

It was the cat’s birthday, so the dog bought her a present.

How is her referring to cat ? Isn't birthday the only noun in the first clause and 'cat's' is being used as a modifier ?

Wouldn't the correct version be something like :

It was the cat's birthday, so the dog bought a present for the cat.

  • See the answer given to this question: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/193775/… – Ronald Sole Jan 25 at 15:24
  • I did, and I am no closer to an answer than before. – Ahmad R. Jan 25 at 15:51
  • Yes, "cat's" is a genitive form and it is used as a modifier. It is, however, still a noun with a referent that can have a gender. Since "her" wants a referent with a gender, the cat is a more sensible antecedent than the birthday. – Gary Botnovcan Jan 25 at 16:01
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It was the cat’s birthday, so the dog bought her a present.

In this standalone sentence, there are only two things that could be referred to by her: the cat and the dog.

  • Both birthday and present are nouns, but neither one of them can reasonably be assigned a female gender in this context. Nor would it make any sense to believe that the dog bought the birthday a present or that the dog bought the present a present (discounting the additional problem with the syntax around present where that would result in the pronoun coming before the noun and the recursive fact that it would mean the present was the present's own present).
  • It's possible that her refers to something in an unstated previous sentence—but, for the sake of argument, let's assume that we're only concerned with this single sentence and there is no context that's been omitted.

This leaves two possibilities:

It was the cat's birthday, so the dog bought (the dog) a present.

There are a couple of problems with this interpretation:

  • When it's somebody's birthday, presents are generally bought for the person whose birthday it is. From the point of view of common sense, it's unlikely (although not impossible) that the dog would buy a present for anybody other than the cat.
  • If it really were the dog who was the recipient of the present, a reflexive pronoun would be the far more likely choice: the dog bought herself a present.

It was the cat's birthday, so the dog bought (the cat) a present.

By the process of elimination, this is the only likely interpretation remaining. It is also positively supported by virtue of the fact that it is the cat's birthday—making the cat the likely recipient of any present.


So, there are really the only two sentences that would make sense:

1. It was the cat's birthday, but the dog bought herself a present instead. [Herself refers to the dog.]

2. It was the cat's birthday, so the dog bought her a present. [Her refers to the cat.]

Since the wording of the actual sentence is that of the second interpretation, the second interpretation is the only one that makes any real sense.


There is no explicit certainty of the referent of any pronoun. It's always possible to come up with some outlandish context for a pronoun to actually be referring to something other than what it was intended to refer to. But unless there are reasonable grounds for uncertainty, you can assume that it's referring to what it makes sense for it to be referring to.

  • Hi Jason, Thanks for the detailed answer. I understand now that the use of 'her' is correct in this sentence as it does not raise any doubts. Having said that, will it be correct to say that writing the sentence as 'It was the cat's birthday, so the dog bought the cat a present.' would be a better choice ? I asked this question after having read the ManhattanGMAT's (MGMAT's) example on 'Pronoun Ambiguity', > "The board is investigating several executives' compensation packages in order to determine how much may have been improperly awarded to them." – Ahmad R. Feb 8 at 20:04
  • where, according to MGMAT, the pronoun 'them' refers better to compensation packages than to 'executives' and goes on to say that only possessive pronouns can be used to refer to possessive nouns. I will appreciate your comment in the context of MGMAT's example. – Ahmad R. Feb 8 at 20:04
  • @AhmadR. You certainly could repeat the cat, but I would personally find that phrasing to be more awkward than any confusion it would avoid. (Which, in this particular sentence, is effectively none.) – Jason Bassford Feb 9 at 0:24
  • Thanks again. I was more interested in hearing your thoughts on the example. Do you think that 'compensation packages' is a 'stronger' antecedent than 'executives' (possessive pronoun) ? – Ahmad R. Feb 9 at 6:26
  • @AhmadR. Ah. I am not confused by the sentence, because it seems obvious that they can only be referring to the executives. (Packages do not receive awards.) So while there might be a very slight hesitation in parsing it, it's more of a contrived issue than a real one. I can think of sentences that have far worse ambiguity with pronouns. It would have been helpful if they had chosen a less subtle example. (Incidentally, the problem can be fixed by simply removing the last two words of the sentence.) – Jason Bassford Feb 9 at 6:34

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