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At first, I wrote this:

Clutching his striped tie, sitting on the couch, Mary waited for Tom to come out from the bathroom.

A native speaker changed that into this:

Clutching Tom's tie, sitting on the couch, Mary waited for him to come out from the bathroom.

My logic was that, if you don't mention Tom in the main clause, you end up with "Mary waited for him" if you take out the introductory clause(s).

What's grammatically correct in this case?

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    Both versions are grammatically / syntactically fine. It's just that your first version is what's called a "garden path" construction. The reader / audience will almost certainly be led up the garden path (misled, deceived) into assuming he is clutching his tie, so when he reaches the actual subject (Mary), he'll have to completely rethink his ongoing interpretation of the sentence. Which makes it very poor style, but it's not "incorrect grammar". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '19 at 15:30
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I think the method you are using of checking correctness by removing clauses does not apply directly to pronoun use, which is probably often processed more left-to-right. I am sure it is more complicated than that, but I will have to defer to an expert on that.

In my opinion, the second one is better. The first one is acceptable, but it could make the reader stop partway through and go back to figure out who "him" is referring to, and it is only non-ambiguous since the reader assumes that Mary is not "him."

If you consider the case where instead of Mary (her), we have Mark (him), the first sentence would be ambiguous or have the wrong meaning, while the second one would be clear and correct.


Clutching his striped tie, sitting on the couch, Mark waited for Tom to come out from the bathroom.

  • Possibly ambiguous depending on context, but I would tend to interpret this as Mark holding Mark's own tie (opposite of what is intended).


Clutching Tom's tie, sitting on the couch, Mark waited for him to come out from the bathroom.

  • Not ambiguous, Mark is holding Tom's tie.
  • Maybe what I suggested is applicable when the introductory clause belongs to the main subject? Example: "Closing her eyes tightly, Mary leaned back on the seat and crossed her arms." Maybe I'm confusing these two cases. – alexchenco Dec 3 '19 at 14:37
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    @alexchenco - I think so. I'm not sure whether it's more important that the clause describes Mary, or whether the word "her" is near the word "Mary" in the sentence. In your comment, it's both, so it's definitely ok. Maybe that's the root of your question though. I'll need to think about it. – Justin Dec 3 '19 at 14:40
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    @alexchenco - That is perfectly fine too. The big difference between these and the one in your original question is whether there is one or two people. It's not really a syntax problem, more of a meaning problem. None of them are wrong (not even your original one) -- it's just a matter of how likely they are to be misinterpreted. – Justin Dec 3 '19 at 18:45
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    Here's a contrived example: Closing the door and oiling its hinges, the robot plugged into the charger. Here, its could refer to the door, the robot, or the charger. I guess my conclusion is that there is no hard rule. – Justin Dec 3 '19 at 18:48
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    That being said, your original sentence doesn't really have any ambiguity, it's just a very slight garden-path sentence, which the proposed correction is not. – Justin Dec 3 '19 at 18:50

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