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Take this example sentence:

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated them to redouble their efforts.

If I use "them", it seems reasonable with the context that I am referring to the blue team. However, one might also think that I am refering maybe to the red team (why not?). Plus, I think that there is a rule that says that when in doubt, pronouns refer to the subject (the red team) and not the object (the blue team).

One solution would be to specify the team again instead of using "them":

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated the blue team to redouble their efforts.

However, I feel that using twice the same words (the blue team) is not elegant writing.

What should one do in these cases? Thank you.

3 Answers 3

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There's nothing wrong with it, grammatically. Avoiding ambiguity is important. As you said, 'they' could refer to either of the aforementioned teams. Adding additional words can make for awkward sentences, though.

You've already had one solution of referring to 'the former' and 'the latter'. This is good but leans on the formal side. A person reading may have to look back and re-read the sentence to note which was mentioned first. In spoken English, the speaker would also have to plan their sentence well, and the listener would have had to pay close attention to the ordering to recall who is former and latter. Often, we want our written English to sound conversational.

A more informal and less wordy way to avoid ambiguity is to introduce the parties in full initially, and then abbreviate the way you refer back to them. For example, if you were introducing a person for the first time you might use their full name including surname, but when referencing them after that you would likely just use one name. In an example like yours, having introduced 'the red team' and 'the blue team', you could subsequently refer to them as 'the reds' and 'the blues'. In professional sports commentary, many teams have nicknames or abbreviated names. For example, after referring to a match between Manchester City and Manchester United, you could refer to the latter simply as 'United'.

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    I agree with you that one of the problems with "former" and "latter" is that it often interrupts the reading flow, as the reader needs to stop and re-read to find out who is who.
    – user163195
    Oct 18, 2022 at 8:28
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It's correct, but as you say, somewhat awkward.

To avoid both ambiguity and repetition in this for something like a sports team, I'd shorten the second mention to just 'the blues' or even use their acknowledged nickname.

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated the blues to redouble their efforts.

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated the jays to redouble their efforts.

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  • Thank you. This is a random example just to illustrate the problem so I wouldn't seek a specific solution. Let's say that we are instead talking about "John" and "Peter", and that we cannot rewrite the sentence. What should be done in these cases? I would go for repetition to avoid ambiguity, but as you say, it is awkward (note that this thread refers to written formal English).
    – user163195
    Oct 17, 2022 at 7:08
  • It's always best to ask the question you actually need the answer to, rather than change it once you have an answer. It saves wasted effort. If you have John & Peter, then you just have to re-use John or Peter. Oct 17, 2022 at 7:10
  • Of course, the traditional way to get round this problem was to use the former and the latter for two subjects previously mentioned - but this would sound absurdly formal in a sports report. Oct 17, 2022 at 7:55
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(OPTION 1) To avoid ambiguity with "them" referring to either Party & to avoid repetition , you can use "former" & "latter".

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated the former to redouble their efforts.
Here , "former" will mean the red team

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated the latter to redouble their efforts.
Here , "latter" will mean the blue team

(OPTION 2) To use "them" to avoid repetition , but still avoid ambiguity with "them" referring to either Party, you can adding a clarification , but this is verbose & is used when there are long sentences & more chances of ambiguity.

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated them [the red team] to redouble their efforts.

The red team outpaced the blue team, which motivated them [the blue team] to redouble their efforts.

I think I have come across this mostly in technical writing or humorous writing (but not speech) & hence I think this should be avoided in casual contexts.

(OPTION 3) You can totally avoid this Issue by writing that in some other way.

The red team were motivated to redouble their efforts , when they outpaced the blue team.
Here , "their" & "they" refers to the red team

The red team outpaced the blue team, who were then motivated to redouble their efforts.
Here , "who" & "their" refers to the blue team

These will cover most of the common cases , though there are other alternatives , in various other contexts.

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    Thank you. "The former" and "the latter" seem like a good solution that I hadn't come up with.
    – user163195
    Oct 17, 2022 at 8:25
  • Nice to know that you liked the "former+latter" Solution.
    – Prem
    Oct 17, 2022 at 8:39

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