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These chocolate-flavored muffins have got walnuts in them, and they smell really good.

Which word does the word "they" in this sentence replace? "Muffins" or "walnuts"?

(I saw this somewhere online so I don't remember the context that well.)

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    When information is left out of a sentence -- by deleting something, or replacing it -- it's lost, and questions like this can't be answered because it is lost. – John Lawler Sep 26 at 17:48

10 Answers 10

33

It is technically ambiguous, but since the smell of the “muffins” generally will override the smell of “walnuts” as just one ingredient of those muffins, I would assume “they” refers to the former.

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    I have a dim memory of being taught that the antecedent to a pronoun is the subject of the previous clause or sentence, not any other noun. "Muffin" is the subject of the first clause. – Todd Wilcox Sep 27 at 6:28
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    But what about the comma after the first clause ? Does this not make the second clause be in apposition to the first ? If so (and it could of course be a misprinted comma) then the word them may refer to the word muffins . . . – Trunk Sep 27 at 13:20
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    @ToddWilcox: According to that criterion, in "I put walnuts in my latest batch of muffins, and they smell really good", it's the walnuts that smell really good. Which is not how most people would understand it. – TonyK Sep 27 at 18:14
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    Or to make an even clearer example, "These boxes have muffins in them, and they smell really good". That 'rule' would say this means the boxes smell good. I don't for one moment believe that's what any native speaker of English would understand on hearing the sentence. It sounds like the kind of 'rule' that may well have been written down by some 18th century grammarian who decided there had to be a rule and this one was as good as any other. But not a rule that has any relevance to how people actually speak or write. – Chris H Sep 28 at 7:48
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    Ngrams not found: "walnuts smell good" I find zero references since 1800. lol – EllieK Sep 28 at 13:49
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I feel that for most of us the ambiguity is intrinsic, no matter what the grammarians have to say.

Had the sentence been written "These chocolate-flavored muffins smell really good, and they have got walnuts in them", "they" would refer unambiguously to the muffins. Had it said "These chocolate-flavored muffins have got walnuts in them, which smell really good", the meaning would also be entirely clear.

But as it is, no subtle linguistic analysis will compensate for the inadequacies and variety of experience even of native speakers (or perhaps I mean of even native speakers).

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    For your second wording, "which smell really good", you say the meaning would be "entirely clear". It may help to explicitly state which you think it is clearly referring to. To my native Br.Eng ears, that version "more clearly" refers to the walnuts as smelling good, not the muffins as a whole. Whereas the original version it is (mostly) clear that it is the muffins that smell good: I read it as listing two properties of muffins: (a) [they] have got walnuts in them, and (b) they smell really good. (As jwpfox's answer says). – TripeHound Sep 27 at 8:15
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    “, which “ refers to the noun or noun phrase immediately preceding. Hence, to the walnuts. – Anton Sep 28 at 7:39
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This is a case of syntactic ambiguity. It poses a problem in computer linguistic. They key point is that the structure of the sentence can only be understood if you take the meaning of the word into account (as opposed to only what type of word it is). Take these two sentences:

  1. We gave the monkeys the bananas because they were hungry.
  2. We gave the monkeys the bananas because they were ripe.

Almost identical sentences, only one adjective is exchanged by another. Yet that causes the "they" to refer to a different noun. A computer could only come to this conclusion if it knows that bananas are for eating, that mokeys become hungry and need to eat, and that bananas are preferably eaten ripe.

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4

It is likely the original author intended this to be a list of attributes of the muffins. Like this:

These chocolate-flavored muffins:

  • have got walnuts in them, and
  • they smell really good.

However the sentence is technically ambiguous and relies on the reader making guesses about the intent of the author.

Do not follow this style if you want your writing to be clear to the reader.

EDIT

The following sentence has the same structure and is impossible to parse for meaning.

The gang leader has a henchman and he is crazy.

There is no way to know if the author considers the henchman or the gang leader to be crazy.

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  • This is how I would interpret the sentence. – TripeHound Sep 27 at 8:17
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    -1 for "Do not follow this style". Native Anglophones use "theoretically ambiguous" constructions all the time. But in nearly all cases, either the intended meaning is pragmatically obvious OR the specific ambiguity is of no consequence in the given context. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 29 at 12:52
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Is reading comprehension not a strong area for you? What does the rest of the sentence you are quoting say? Is writing that avoids ambiguity clearer? You are not covering yourself in glory with these sorts of comments. – jwpfox Sep 29 at 12:58
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In your sentence, grammatically you cannot determine whether it is the muffins or walnuts. Since there is absolutely no reference to which noun they are talking about. Like the other answer, logically you would presume they are speaking about the muffins. I would dock points on academic level paper for this, but in normal everyday speech I don't think I would even pause to give it thought.

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Only context can help you here. Muffins smell more than walnuts, so most likely they refers to muffins. But consider this:

My neighbors have two children, and they are very smart.

More ambiguous.

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1

Intelligent and thoughtful as the previous answers are, they seem to me to lose sight of the fact that "they" is preceded by "them," which, however grammatically ambiguous, is not logically ambiguous.

These chocolate flavored muffins have walnuts in THEM

I concede that the technical rules of English grammar leave ambiguous whether "them" refers to "walnuts" or to "muffins" and that the rule of propinquity favors "walnuts." That does not mean that what was intended or what will be construed is that these particular walnuts have walnuts inside them like vegetable homunculi. It means that the muffins contain walnuts. Thus, the antecedent for "they" in the next clause has been logically implied.

Two points are worth making. One is the danger of treating the grammar of natural languages like languages designed for computer processing, which depend only on grammar for meaning. Natural languages convey meaning through grammar in the context of general human knowledge. Muffins may contain walnuts; walnuts do not contain walnuts. No one over the age of 6 would suppose that "them" refers to "walnuts" rather than "muffins." Nor would "they" almost immediately following "them" be evaluated independently.

A second point is that, although this specific case is ambiguous only in a formal sense, good writing style mandates much closer attention to antecedents than does spoken English. Verbose construction provides many opportunities for ambiguity.

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Pronouns refer back to the last noun.

These chocolate-flavored muffins have got walnuts in them,

Technically, the "them" here should refer back to "walnuts", but it's clear to everyone from the context that it really refers back to "muffins". So, okay. "them" == "muffins".

and they smell really good.

Again, pronouns refer back to the previous noun. At this point in the sentence, the previous noun is the pronoun "them". And we've already established that "them" refers to "muffins". So "they" does too.

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    Pronouns don't necessarily refer to the last noun. In "The dog chased the cat, but it couldn't catch it", the first "it" refers to "the dog", not "the cat", which is the last noun (the reference is unambiguous because of the semantics of "chase" and "catch"). One could modify the OP's example slightly and "they" would refer to "walnuts": "These muffins have walnuts in them, but they are not the kind of walnuts that I am allergic to." – John Velonis Sep 28 at 17:01
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Where the same pronoun appears more than once in the same sentence, it should normally refer to the same noun. If it doesn't, the onus is on the writer or speaker to make that clear. So since "them" refers to muffins, "they" (which is the same pronoun, albeit in a different case) also refers to muffins.

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As the sentence is written it implies a because. Phrases like the OP's are often intended to carry an implied because which would be transmitted via context. These chocolate-flavored muffins have got walnuts in them, and [because of that] they smell really good. In that case the they is muffins but that is the addition of walnuts. Without the implied because the additional information about walnuts is extraneous.

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    My guess is very few people, if any, refer to walnuts as smelling good. – EllieK Sep 28 at 13:28

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