In telling the history of the United States and also of the nations of the Western Hemisphere in general, historians have wrestled with the problem of what to call the hemisphere's first inhabitants. Under the mistaken impression he had reached the “Indies,” explorer Christopher Columbus called the people he met “Indians.” This was an error in identification that has persisted for more than five hundred years, for the inhabitants of North and South America had no collective name by which they called themselves

  1. What does which refer to?
  2. What does themselves refer to?

5 Answers 5


This sentence is saying that the people who lived in the Americas before Columbus arrived didn't have a name that meant "people who live in the Americas". Probably because they didn't know of anyone else. As far as they knew the Americas was the world, so they just called themselves "people".

"Which" is referring back to the word "name". "Themselves" is referring to the people who lived in the Americas. The people who lived in the Americas had no name that they used to call themselves.


'Which' refers to 'collective name'. 'Which' is a relative pronoun.

'Themselves' refers to the inhabitants of North and South America. 'Themselves' is a reflexive pronoun


"By which" is often used as a fancy way to say "that we can use to do something".

For example, "my cat has no means by which to open a can" is fancy for "my cat doesn't have anything she can use to open a can". Or, from the internet "the processes by which authentic leaders exert their influence" means "the processes leaders use to exert influence".

Notice how the word order changes to make the sentences sound correct. Even native speakers often use "by which" in an awkward-sounding way.

So, your sentence decodes into "inhabitants [...] had no collective name they could use to call all tribes together". As an aside, I've read that groups of tribes often called themselves "Indians" since that was the English word.

  • Too small of an edit for me to make, but I take it you meant "my cat has no means by which to open a can"?
    – Drake P
    Mar 3, 2022 at 16:01
  • @DrakeP Great. Now I have to worry about whether that was a Freudian slip. Mar 3, 2022 at 16:31

You can rephrase the last sentence this way:

This was a mistake in identification that lasted more than five hundred years, because the inhabitants of North and South America had no collective name to call themselves.

You see that themselves refers to inhabitants.


In general you refer backwards until you find the first noun or noun phrase (which) or plural personal noun phrase (themselves). Here, "collective name" and "Inhabitants of North and South America" respectively.

It's not 100% reliable, but context ought to immediately clarify matters. If it's ambiguous, it's the author at fault.

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