I saw the following sentence, and am wondering whether "mistake" should be replaced with "mistook."

Plastic bags have been found in the guts of dead sea turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish.

I'd appreciate your help.

  • 1
    It is ambiguous. Depending on your interpretation, either could be correct. In fact, the sentence is written in such a way that I hadn't realized at first that it was the sea turtles (dead or not) who had been doing the mistaking. (In other words, I applied mistake to the entire first clause—which didn't sound right.) The verb form you use will change the assumption about the referent. If you use mistake, it will be assumed you are referring to all sea turtles; if you use mistook, it will be assumed you are talking about dead sea turtles. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Feb 22 at 17:45
  • Plastic bags have been found in the guts of dead sea turtles which had mistaken them for jellyfish. – Lambie Feb 22 at 21:33

The present tense is used, among other things, for general statements. Plastic bags have been found; this is something that has happened, so it is in the present perfect. Sea turtles in general think that carrier bags are jellyfish and try to eat them, so that is in the present tense.

This isn't to say that you couldn't use the past tense, in which case you would be saying the particular turtles that the bags were found in had mistaken them for jellyfish. Just that there is no problem with it being the present tense - to make it a general statement about sea turtles and plastic bags.

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    But it is "dead sea turtles" that are in the sentence. – Apollyon Feb 22 at 12:59
  • Late sea turtles, in fact. – Michael Harvey Feb 22 at 13:00
  • Also have to consider that plastic bags will be found in the guts of sea turtles that are not dead yet, but have swallowed plastic bags... – Solar Mike Feb 22 at 13:06
  • I believe any native reader would understand that, in the general statement "which mistake them for jellyfish", the antecedent of which is "sea turtles", not "dead sea turtles". This happens, that the antecedent of a relative pronoun is intended to be an earlier noun without any adjectives. All sea turtles make the mistake, not just the dead ones. And even living ones may have bags in their guts. – SamBC Feb 22 at 13:07
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    If we analyze the sentence grammatically, the antecedent to "which" is "dead sea turtles." Do dead sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish? Or is that what living sea turtles do? – Apollyon Feb 22 at 14:30

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