English is not my first language. Thus, every time I write an English sentence, my brain has to work at 100% efficiency, because there are so many things that I am not very sure of. For example, "If I create an English sentence like that, then can native English speakers understand the exact meaning of that sentence?"

One of the problems is the reference issue in English.

For example, read this sentence:

When the buyer returns the item (if the return adheres to the return policy), the seller needs to refund as stated in its service.

So what does its refer to?

Of course, most people will say its means the seller's.

When the buyer returns the item (if the return adheres to the return policy), the seller needs to refund as stated in the seller's service.

However, people can understand its because of the context, since only the seller has service; the buyer will not have any service.

But this can cause confusion:

The teacher gave the student her notes

So her here means the teacher or the student?

If the note belonged to the teacher, then The teacher gave the student the teacher's note is rather repetitive.

I believe there should be an elegant way to control the reference ambiguity issue in English without repetition. I think it is an art, but I don't know how.

So what is an elegant way to control the reference issue in English which avoids repetition and is very clear?

  • Tim, unless it's something very obvious, one should generally give a question at least a day before marking an answer as "correct". That gives others an opportunity to provide alternate answers which can give you more insight into various aspects of the answer. That also allows your question to get more points as well as other answers to get points. And even if let's say Codeswitcher's answer is the best and still marked correct, leaving the question open longer would allow his answer to be upvoted more as well. – CoolHandLouis May 8 '14 at 7:08
  • And I might say, questions about referential ambiguity is a very interesting and very important issue in English (as well as other languages I assume). – CoolHandLouis May 8 '14 at 7:10
  • done as your suggestion – Tim May 8 '14 at 8:13
  • (Note that, in fairness, I say the same thing when someone quickly marks my own answer correct.) – CoolHandLouis May 8 '14 at 9:37

Context, context, context!

In real life sentences occur in discourses. That means, on the one hand, that their function is limited to importing new meanings into what has already been expressed, and on the other hand, their interpretation is constrained by what has already been expressed. Consequently, in real life sentences are never called on to make their entire meaning explicit and unambiguous.

This is why you so frequently see us complaining here about insufficient context. In your example, for instance, it is not clear whether the phrase as stated in its service [policy] means a) that the policy requires the refund or b) that the refund must be executed in the manner which the policy requires. But I'm confident that this would be evident in context.

A practised writer exploits the context to strip out inessentials and incorporate previously defined content by reference.

  • I assume, for instance, that your sentence occurs after some discussion—at least a mention—of the entities ‘Return Policy’ and ‘Service Policy’. If that is the case, there is no need to specify whose policies are in question.
  • Moreover, it is unnecessary name the buyer at all: that is an entity which may be taken for granted in the context of returns and refunds.

These two considerations permit you to disambiguate your sentence—a) and b) reflect the alternative interpretations above:

a) The Service Policy requires the seller to refund [the full purchase price of] any item returned under the Return Policy.

b) The seller must refund, in the manner prescribed in the Service Policy, [the full purchase price of] any item returned under the Return Policy.

Note, too, that in laws and regulations (which is the context suggested by your sentence) ‘the seller’ and ‘the buyer’ will ordinarily become names: Seller and Buyer. In commercial writing an even more useful, and reader-friendly, convention obtains: the publishers and readers of communications are identified with first- and second-person pronouns. Ordinarily the seller would be the publisher and would become ‘we’; ‘you’ would designate the customer if the document is addressed to customers, or the employee if it is addressed to staff.

a) The Service Policy requires us to refund [the full purchase price of] any item returned under the Return Policy.

In your second example, likewise, look to the context. A mention defining the notes before this sentence—that the teacher took notes on the student’s work, or that the student had handed in her notes—will disambiguate the reference.

The efficiency and accuracy—and grace!—you seek is achieved by writing discourses: entire paragraphs and documents, not sentences.

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  • so u mean, in the 2nd example, we can say "The teacher gave the student her notes" if we somehow identified "whose note it is" in the previous sentence? SO the reader need to read the whole paragraph to understand? is it a right way? or try to make the sentence as independent as possible? that is the reader is still be able to understand without reading the whole paragraph? – Tim May 8 '14 at 10:39
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    @Tim The reader cannot understand anything without the context. Who is the teacher? Who is the student? The notes are no different. Without context, why should the reader care? – StoneyB on hiatus May 8 '14 at 10:46
  • +1 "The efficiency and accuracy—and grace!—you seek is achieved by writing discourses: entire paragraphs and documents, not sentences." – Nico May 28 '14 at 12:43

1. Here are some example sentences that remove the ambiguity:

  • The teacher gave her notes to the student. [Phrasal economy: "The teacher gave her notes" is understandable as a unit of meaning.
  • The teacher lent her notes to the student. [Lent implies ownership and obligation to return.]
  • The teacher gave the student's notes back to her. [Ownership established.]
  • The student got her notes [back] from the teacher. [Phrasal economy: "her" quickly refers back to "the student". "Back" can emphasize they were given to the teacher before.]
  • The teacher said, "Here are your notes, Judy." [Explicit deixis]
  • The teacher said, "Here are my notes, Judy." [Explicit deixis]
  • The teacher gave her suggested study-plan notes to her student. [Knowledge of the world.]

Note some general themes: use a speech act, name the person, switch perspectives.

2. Use context to remove ambiguity.

Scenario 1: The student had been trying to get her notes back from her teacher for three weeks, so she complained to the principle. That same day, the teacher gave the student her notes.

Scenario 2: The teacher felt sorry for her student that had missed so many classes. She was a bright student, but there was no way she was going to pass the test with so many absences. Then she realized that all her lectures were exactly based on her notes. After discussing it with the principle, they made the decision. The teacher gave the student her notes.

3. Here are some Internet references on this subject.

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The purpose of repetition is to be very clear. Both of your examples would be understood, but the second one would be easier for someone with limited language skills or in case clarity is required (such as in legal notices). It depends on the context and intended audience.

By the way, I would not say "... as stated in the seller's/its service" by itelf. Generally this should be a "service policy", "service program" or such.

As for:

The teacher gave the student her notes.

There is no way to know if its the teacher's or the student's notes, without additional context. That context does not have to be in this statement, otherwise it can become repetitive. Other details stated before this statement should clarify the intended meaning.

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HA! No, we don't have one of those in English. And let me tell you: my work life would be substantially easier if we did. Because I have to avoid such ambiguities in my professional writing, it's full of clunkers like, "The client told the doctor about the client's father's seizures and the client's own physical disabilities but the doctor did not give the client a copy of the client's father's medication list." (Only, in abbreviations.) Basically, I get to use pronouns only when there's only one person in the narrative, because English pronoun grammar is fundamentally inadequate.

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  • so you are professional writer right? Did you learn how to limit reference ambiguity? If you "use pronouns only when there's only one person in the narrative" then your sentences will have a lot of repetition. Don't you think? – Tim May 8 '14 at 5:36
  • No, I'm not a professional writer in the sense I think you mean. As part of my profession, I am required to write reports. And, yes, alas, as you observe, my sentences have lots, and lots, and lots of repetition, as per my example. I'm not happy about that. That seems to be a limitation of English. – Codeswitcher May 8 '14 at 6:05

Sorry, there is no simple formula for eliminating ambiguity in pronoun references.

Sometimes the gender of the pronoun will be sufficient. Like, "Mr Brown, the teacher, gave the student her notes." "Her" must refer to the student because the teacher is now identified as male.

Or the number of the pronoun may indicate which. Like if you said, "The teacher gave the students their notes", as "teacher" is singular and "students" is plural, "their" must refer to "students".

As @stoneyb says, often we can tell from the larger context. You probably wouldn't just walk up to someone and say, "The teacher gave the student her notes." What teacher? What student? It would likely be part of a longer conversation. "My friend Sally is taking a physics class. She was sick and missed a couple of classes, so she asked the teacher if she could have a copy of her lecture notes for those classes. The teacher gave the student her notes." Now it's clear from the context that we mean the teacher's notes.

Often simple logic will tell us which is meant. "When the driver hit the deer on the highway, his insurance paid for the damage." As deer rarely have insurance -- they're very irresponsible that way -- "his" here almost certainly refers to the driver.

But yes, it often happens that none of these things help in a particular case. The only choice than is to add additional words to clarify.

It does indeed sound repetitive and awkward to repeat the same noun. "The teacher gave the student the teacher's notes." How awkward it sounds depends on how often you repeat the word and how close together the repetitions are.

A very common alternative is to use different words to refer to the same person or object, where the identification is either spelled out in context or is logically obvious. "When the driver hit the deer, he was badly injured." Does "he" here refer to the driver or the deer? It could be either one. But, "When the driver hit the deer, the man was badly injured." Now we haven't repeated the word "driver" but we have made clear that it was the human and not the animal that was injured. (Well, the animal may have been injured also, but that's not the point of the sentence.) This is particularly useful when the problem is not repetition within a sentence but between sentences. "The student approached the teacher after class. The student told the teacher that she wanted to get the notes. The teacher gave the student her notes." Very repetitive sounding. But, "Sally approached her teacher after class. She told Dr Brown that she wanted to get the notes. Dr Brown gave the student her teacher notes."

Some writers consider it less awkward to put a repeated word in parentheses after the pronoun. "The teacher gave the student her (the teacher's) notes." I wouldn't do this in every sentence, but it works when used rarely.

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