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That tidal disruption of a Sun-like star by a black hole 1 million times more massive than itself took place 215 million light-years from Earth.

So that the star is as large as the Sun is clear to me. But I am not sure which one the word 'itself' refers to. Does that mean the black hole is 1 million times more massive than the Sun-like star?

Source article (in the second paragraph)

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  • I am also confused. I wonder if this is a printing mistake! From the context, it looks like the black hole is being compared to itself. How can something be 1 million times more massive than itself?
    – Mistu4u
    Aug 2, 2022 at 5:57
  • It's an example of unclear technical writing. Grammatically, you could read it as "1 million times more massive than [the black hole] itself", or as "1 million times more massive than [that tidal disruption] itself" or as "1 million times more massive than [the Sun-like star] itself".
    – Brandin
    Aug 2, 2022 at 6:04
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    If the sentence was originally in a different language (where genders are used), this might be a translation issue. In gendered-languages, a word like "itself" would usually take a gender that would match the gender of the other object mentioned (sun, disruption, hole).
    – Brandin
    Aug 2, 2022 at 6:08

1 Answer 1

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First of all, the sentence is awkward and rather unusual. So don't use it as a good example of how to express this idea.

The black hole is one million times more massive than the Sun-like star it consumed.

To make it easier to understand, you can add either that was or which was offset by commas:

That tidal disruption of a Sun-like star by a black hole that was one million more times more massive than itself took place 215 million light years from Earth.

That tidal disruption of a Sun-like star by a black hole, which was one million more times more massive than itself, took place 215 million light years from Earth.

Plus, I think it's fairly common knowledge that black holes are among the most massive objects in the universe

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  • Your explanation is not very convincing. The subject of the sentence seems to be "the tidal disruption of a Sun-like star". That's what the sentence is about. So why does itself not refer to the tidal disruption?
    – Brandin
    Aug 2, 2022 at 6:04
  • Common sense suggests this interpretation - I must admit that it wouldn't have occurred to me that the sentence was ambiguous. Aug 2, 2022 at 8:46
  • I updated my answer to be more comprehensive. Aug 2, 2022 at 14:09
  • Thanks for everyone's sharing. I just updated the source article.
    – H.Li
    Aug 2, 2022 at 14:18
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    I have no problem with this answer, which I have upvoted. I am surprised, however, that no one has pointed out that nothing can be more massive than itself. While grammatically the referent of “itself” is ambigous, it is perfectly clear logically. Many grammatical ambiguities cause no confusion because one interpretation is logically meaningless. Aug 2, 2022 at 14:43

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