6

Consider "their" in the following sentence:

Existential psychologists differed from others often classified as humanistic in their comparatively neutral view of human nature and in their relatively positive assessment of anxiety.

Is their referring to existential psychologists or others? Is there any general rule for such cases?

I didn't know what to search for, so an external link or even a name to search for would also be good.

  • I think it's for psychologists. I tried this way - *white people (who?) differed from black people often classified as 'people with fair skin' in their appearance. :) – Maulik V May 22 '14 at 9:23
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Grammatically, it's ambiguous:

  1. Existential psychologists differed from [others often classified as humanistic in their comparatively neutral view of human nature and in their relatively positive assessment of anxiety].

  2. Existential psychologists differed from [others often classified as humanistic] in their comparatively neutral view of human nature and in their relatively positive assessment of anxiety.

So in theory, either is possible.

Practically speaking, reading 1 seems unlikely. The sentence as a whole seems like it's intended to describe "existential psychologists", so reading 2 is more natural. But to be sure, we need additional context or information you didn't include. In context, only reading 2 makes sense; these psychologists embraced existential angst à la Kierkegaard or Sartre.

As for a general rule? Go for what makes sense in context. Isolating complex sentences almost always makes them harder to interpret.

  • +1 Here's a paraphrase: Existential psychologists, unlike the other humanistic psychologists, had a comparatively neutral view of human nature and a relatively positive assessment of anxiety. The "Humanistic Existential Psychologists" are being compared to other humanistic psychologists. The original source has more context (as you say) that confirms this interpretation. :) – CoolHandLouis May 22 '14 at 11:12
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Yes, the sentence is ambiguous, at least at the first reading.

  • If the two in phrases modify/complement differ, the two theirs refer to existential psychologists.

  • If the phrases modify/complement classified, the theirs refer to others.

Alas, there's no general rule for readers to disambiguate bad writing; it has to happen on the writer's side.

I would guess that in this case the theirs refer to existential pyschologists, because with classify, in ordinarily heads phrases describing categories ("classified in the top quartile") rather than criteria ("classified by their view of human nature"). But I have no confidence in this author's sensitivity to such matters.

  • Yes! And in addition, that author got into trouble as soon as they said "differed from" which led to the awkward form, "A differed from B in their Attribute1 and in their Attribute2." – CoolHandLouis May 22 '14 at 11:05

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