Who does "his" refer to?

You're trapped in a stalled elevator with your annoying boss. A fairy only you can see tells you to superglue his mouth. Otherwise, It'll be 18 hours before you're rescued.

Is superglue his mouth referring to the boss or the fairy?

Please note this statement is being narrated to you, this isn't something you are reading.

• This appears to be part of a puzzle. It is very likely that we could tell by reading the whole thing. Please give a link to the text or at least explain the rest of the story. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 14:47
• Well it is part of a game called "Split the room" where you basically fill in the blank to make both choices are hard as possible the answer given was "Superglue his mouth" so a debate happened because its a loophole to get out of the situation to superglue the fairy's mouth because of how it was worded Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 16:52
• There is no loophole. If the fairy said, "Glue his mouth" then it must be referring to the boss. If the fairy said, "Glue my mouth" then it was referring to itself. If you were trapped in the lift, then you are the one who knows what the fairy said because you were there and you are the one telling the story. Therefore you can tell everyone what it said and you can tell them what happened. This is a stupid game and doesn't make any sense. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:27
• @chasly-supportsMonica You wouldn't say "glue my mouth" in reported speech, since "my" would then refer to the narrator. You would only say it if you were quoting the fairy. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 21:04
• @chasly-supportsMonica I believe that Barmar is saying that you would only say it if you were quoting (as opposed to indirectly reporting the speech of) the fairy. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 22:21

It is ambiguous, but we would probably assume that the word "his" is referring to the boss, for a number of reasons:

• Only you can see the fairy - they are a supernatural entity and it is unclear that you can touch them.
• Fairies are typically conceived as female (although they don't have to be). The stereotypical boss is probably still imagined as male (although they by no means have to be).
• Your boss is annoying, so there is some logic to shutting him up.
• It is counterintuitive that the fairy would ask you to glue their own lips together. As it is an unpleasant thing thing to do to someone, it is intuitively more likely that the fairy would ask you to do it to someone else.
• There is a sense that you are being asked to do something risky or transgressive, something that might get you into trouble but which carries the promise of a reward. This makes no sense if you are talking about doing something to a fairy that only you can see.

Of course, if someone were asking you this, it could be a trick question (possibly one designed to illustrate gender biases - although as I've said, gender isn't the only reason for interpreting the sentence this way).

• Is it worth remarking that the 'fairy' might be a personification of the person's own thoughts? We often say, e.g. 'a little demon whispered in my ear that I should glue the boss's mouth shut', when we do not mean to say that we believe in demons, or that we heard anything. You see a little demon (with pointed ears and whiskers) perching on Tom's shoulder sometimes in 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons. Also we might 'hear' suggestions from an 'imp of mischief'. Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 9:56
• @MichaelHarvey: The personification is irrelevant, because if you interpret it like that, the mouth of that personified fairy is similarly materialized, so it remains ambiguous whose mouth it is referring to. The personification argument doesn't really add to the posed question, as the same grammatical ambiguity would remain if it were talking about a third human being in that elevator. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 12:12
• What I don't understand is how supergluing anyone's mouth will affect how long it takes to be rescued. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 12:57
• As a gender-bias question, this would be better as: "You're trapped in a stalled elevator with your boss and your secretary. A fairy only you can see tells you to superglue his mouth. [for whatever nefarious reason]" - who is "his" referring to? (clearly unclear, but gender-bias would indicate the boss) Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 14:45
• @Flater Having personified thoughts which involve harm to other (actual) people is a common trope. Having personified thoughts which involve harm to your personified thoughts is not a common trope. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 16:24

This is known as an "unclear antecedent", and is formally considered a grammatical error even when the meaning is obvious. I recall an SAT study question from long ago, "Neither the Christians nor the lions knew their hour was up". The correct answer was to mark the sentence as an error. It didn't even matter if the hour ended for both of them at the same time, it seemed.

The bright side: everyone does it - or at least, I do, much more often than I'd like to admit.

• Can you please expand on why the sentence is ambiguous?
– WoJ
Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 7:31
• @WoJ because we don't know whether "his" refers to the boss or the fairy.................... Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 11:07
• @user253751: no, I meant in Neither the Christians nor the lions knew their hour was up"
– WoJ
Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 11:17
• "They" could be one or the other (or both). But I should say, the study book's claim the sentence was incorrect was surprising enough to me at the time that it I remembered it decades later. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 11:19
• It's formally considered by whom to be a grammatical error? Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 7:51

I think "his" refers to the boss. The reason is mostly explained by rjpond but I have another reason:

If the storyteller intended to say that the word "his" refers to the fairy itself, they would've said, "A fairy only you can see tells you to superglue his own mouth". Here, the word own is used to indicate that his refers to the same person as the subject.

• I don't think own works well here - I'd generally expect it to refer to something belonging to the person performing the action, rather than the one instructing. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 14:45
• @MaciejStachowski Citation for "own" relating to the person who's doing the action? None of my usual dictionaries have that usage, they just mention that it relates a specifies thing that belongs to someone as opposed to any thing of that type. Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 16:32
• @user3067860 Hm, I thought that was standard usage, but you're right that there's nothing in the dictionaries. It's just that telling someone "X your own Y" is much more prevalent than telling someone "X my own Y". Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 9:27
• @user3067860 To think about it, my only citation is Wiktionary. "Belonging to; possessed; proper to. Often marks a possessive determiner as reflexive, referring back to the subject of the clause or sentence", the best thing I can find with a more reliable dictionary is "used with a possessive to emphasize that someone or something belongs or relates to the person or thing mentioned." according to the Oxford Dictionary Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:12
• eslbase.com/grammar/reflexive-pronouns also states that own is used to replace reflexive possessive pronoun. Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 11:35

According to this source, the antecedent is whichever valid possibility is closest to the pronoun. Since his in the example sentence could refer to the fairy, and fairy is closer than boss, the antecedent must be fairy. Of course, if the sentence had read A princess only you can see tells you to superglue his mouth, then the antecedent would have to be boss, because a princess can't be a he.

• I gotta say, typically pronoun resolution is informed by discourse salience much more than constituent order. Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 7:54
• What is a valid antecedent?:) It's all a guessing game based on contextual and cultural knowledge. What if the first person referred to was David, the second Taylor Swift, and the pronoun "his"? You might assume it refers back to David, but what if Taylor is a male Taylor who just happens to share a name with the pop singer? What if someone called Sarah-Louise is mentioned - but turns out to have changed their gender identity without yet changing their name? What if Jean is mentioned, but turns out to be a French Jean (m.) and not a British Jean (f.)? Someone called Nicola (ital.m./UK.f.)? Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 12:21