A freelancer who is a native speaker wrote this. He said "their" is referring to the athletes and entertainers referenced previously. But I don't buy it because the previous sentence is only about "athletes like Micheal Phelps". Do you think the referent of "their" is clear? I can ask him to rewrite it if it's unclear.

There may be numerous aspiring singers, but only a handful can consistently produce music that deeply resonates with people. Similarly, the exceptional achievements of athletes like Michael Phelps are extremely rare. The rarity of such talent increases their market value and justifies higher compensation.

  • It refers to "athletes".
    – gotube
    Jun 4 at 16:06
  • @gotube, thank you. Can you also tell me if the referent of "such talent" is clear? Jun 4 at 16:13
  • 3
    It refers to the handful of singers and athletes like Phelps. The clue is in the word "similarly". "their" therefore, refers to those two groups of people.
    – Lambie
    Jun 4 at 16:18
  • @Lambie, thank you. This is so advanced for English learners. Jun 4 at 16:20
  • I think you will find that if you translate the meaning properly into your language, it would be the same thing...:) It's good writing but why are you checking it?? :)
    – Lambie
    Jun 4 at 16:42

1 Answer 1


The referent is clear from context. It is the plural "athletes like [Michael] Phelps", although as @Lambie commented, it could also include the "handful...".

However, a stricter--some might argue "pedantic" but this is ELL after all--interpretation of the sentence in question could lead one to take "such talent" as the referent, and because that is singular, it creates a problem given that "their" wants a plural. That may be part of what is raising a flag for you. (And it would for me too!) The meaning the author is trying to convey is not so much:

The rarity of such talent increases their market value and justifies higher compensation.

But rather:

The rarity of such talent increases the market value of those who possess it and justifies higher compensation.

Whether it is worth asking for a rewrite is more a matter of style than hard grammatical fact. On the one hand the ambiguity, even though resolved by context, creates an unintended cognitive dissonance so there is a case for fixing it. On the other hand, context does make the meaning clear, so it could be left as-is. And as you can see from my example above, it may be that a rewrite is clumsy (my intent in the above was not to suggest new wording!) which might make the whole thing worse than before.

Overall, if it were me, I'd prefer it fixed, although I'd probably just copy-edit it myself, if appropriate, rather than pass it back to the author for a rewrite. That said, I'd probably be too busy to fret about such tiny details, and so I might just let it go.

  • I disagree because the writer mentions two categories. No need to rewrite it.
    – Lambie
    Jun 4 at 18:18
  • I think you and I are focusing on two different issues: you on the fact that there are two categories; and me on the apparent singular/plural mismatch between "such talent" and "their". I'd say both points are valid, which is why I referenced yours at the start of my answer. I suppose I could have incorporated it into my example, but mine was already clumsy; trying to bring yours in would have exacerbated that. As to the need for a rewrite: the fact that you and I, both knowledgeable and native/fluent speakers, are discussing it suggests that at least some word-smithing is warranted. :-)
    – tkp
    Jun 6 at 18:57
  • such talent can refer to more than one group if there is more than one antecedent with talent.
    – Lambie
    Jun 6 at 21:58

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