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"I need more people in order to answer the question" seems to mean that I am going to answer the question. I don't see how it can refer to people.
I need more people to answer the question." This is ambiguous since it is not clear whether the answer is to be given by I or people.”

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I'd like to know what "refer to" means and what "it" refers to.

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    The source makes the possible intended meanings quite clear. I need more people to answer the question (1) - A teacher is asking more students to answer his question. (2) - A supervisor of a research project needs more employees so that they can answer the question. In principle there's even further ambiguity for sense (2), because it might be "singular they" (so the supervisor can answer the question), or "they" might refer to "more employees" doing the answering. Jan 26, 2023 at 12:42
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    "it" refers to the statement itself, not "people". Jan 26, 2023 at 12:45
  • I modified the title, which was a quotation, because it seems you were incredulous that "it" was used to refer to people. Feel free to roll back the edit if you prefer the original.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 26, 2023 at 12:57

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Note that this is fairly casual writing in a discussion forum.

The word "It" here means the whole statement "I need more people in order to answer the question"

The sentence "I don't see how it can refer to people." means that the poster (in that other forum) does not understand how the first statement alludes to or involves "people". "The expresion "refer to" has its ordinary meaning: A statement refers to something when it points to or alludes to that thing. This is an intransitive sense of the verb "refer". Merriam-webstern gives for this sense:

(1b) to direct attention usually by clear and specific mention; no one referred to yesterday's quarrel

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  • "fairly casual writing" might be relevant if we were examining, say, I don't see how... But I don't think using it to refer to the entirety of a preceding utterance has anything to do with formal / informal writing. Jan 26, 2023 at 17:23
  • @FumbleFingers True, such a use of "it" can and does occur in every register, from very casual to ultra-formal. My point was only that this example should not be relied on as a source for "correct" usage. Indeed the poster seems to me to be rather confused. Jan 26, 2023 at 17:29
  • Well, I suppose there's a line of argument that "formal" writing tends to avoid ambiguity more than "casual" text does. Partly because "casual" very often implies spoken, and many potential ambiguities in writing simply vanish when the words are spoken (either because of intonation, or because spoken words almost always occur in a full context). So perhaps the "supervisor" version of OP's example would be more likely to include disambiguating in order to in a formal request to his sponsors to ask for more resources! :) Jan 26, 2023 at 18:18

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