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What does this refer to in the sentence? Does it refer to chewing or the extraction of more fuel and raw materials from a mouthful of food(resulting from chewing)? I think this refers to the latter, but I am not sure. Sometimes pronouns evade me.

Chewing also leads to smaller particles for swallowing, and more exposed surface area for digestive enzymes to act on. In other words, it means the extraction of more fuel and raw materials from a mouthful of food. This is especially important for mammals because they are endotherm―they heat their bodies from within. It takes fuel, and lots of it, to be endothermic and keep the home furnace burning.

Teeth: A Very Short Introduction

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  • It refers to the extraction of more fuel and raw materials from a mouthful of food.
    – BillJ
    Sep 9, 2022 at 13:01

1 Answer 1

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It is not an ideal sentence. The “this” refers to the “the extraction of more fuel.”

It can frequently be grammatically ambiguous in English what noun or phrase a pronoun refers to. Such ambiguity is particularly frequent with respect to demonstrative pronouns like “this,” which are often used to refer to phrases that a writer does not want to repeat.

A recommendation for clear expression is to use a pronoun to refer only to the closest preceding possible referent (this is not a rule of grammar; it is violated all the time.) In this case, “this” refers back to part of a preceding phrase, but not the immediately preceding phrase.

We often have to use context to decipher what “this” refers to. In this case, context makes clear that the author has narrowed the focus to the “extraction of more fuel.”

This is not terrible writing because the context resolves the grammatical ambiguity, but it would have made the reader’s understanding easier and quicker to have written

… extraction of more fuel and raw materials from a mouthful of food. More fuel is especially important for mammals …

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