Consider the following sentence that I wrote myself:

Kumbhakarn then smashed Sugreev's head with a rock, causing him to lose consciousness.

The subject of the sentence is Kumbhakarn, while the object is Sugreev's head. So it seems like 'him' can refer to only one person--Kumbhakarn. Am I mistaken?

Should I repeat "Sugreev"?

Kumbhakarn then smashed Sugreev's head with a rock, causing Sugreev to lose consciousness.

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    I think he is mistaken.
    – James K
    Aug 6 at 10:47
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    @OP You must link to the source of the quote If that's not possible, you must tell us exactly where you read or heard this, or if you wrote it yourself.
    – James K
    Aug 6 at 10:50
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    @JamesK I wrote it myself but am wondering whether to replace 'him' with 'Sugreev'.
    – Shoes
    Aug 6 at 10:57
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    I've edited. Remember to include this kind of information in the question.
    – James K
    Aug 6 at 11:04
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    “The subject of the sentence is Kumbhakarn” — The subject of the main clause is Kumbhakarn. But a sentence can have more than one clause.
    – gidds
    Aug 6 at 22:09

2 Answers 2


The syntax is ambiguous, the semantics are not ambiguous.

Consider the effect of smashing someone's head with a rock. This is likely to make the person with the smashed head unconscious. It probably won't make the person with the rock unconscious. So there is only one reasonable understanding: "him" refers to Sugreev.

Your mistake is to try to apply mechanical "rules" to finding the antecedent of the pronoun "him", rather than pragmatically using your understanding of the words and context. There's no need to repeat the word, and doing so would not be good style.

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    "him" refers to Sugreev - 100% agree. There's no need to repeat the word - 100% agree. and doing so would not be good style Mmmm, that's a matter of opinion, I suggest. On a standalone basis, it would be OK to repeat the word. But depending on the genre, circumstance and context of the sentence, repeating the word could well add value to a narrative.
    – Tedinoz
    Aug 7 at 4:40
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    @Tedinoz: It would not be grammatically incorrect to repeat the name, but in the phrasing as presented it would not be idiomatic usage.
    – Flater
    Aug 7 at 6:03
  • @Flater there are possibly some unusual circumstances where it might be, if minimising ambiguity is much more of a priority than normally (e.g. in a legal deposition), but I think the stylistics of such circumstances is probably beyond the scope of the question
    – Tristan
    Aug 7 at 13:46
  • Further to Jame's Answer the example does seem to pose tricky queries but that's partly because it's contrived to do that The hard rule of one subject for one sentence calls for re-wording, like the fact that strictly, to 'smash a head with a rock' rather than merely 'smashing a rock into a head' will prolly cause death. More… Aug 7 at 17:17
  • Further… In the mid-20th Century Captain W.E. Johns wrote nearly 100 'Biggles' stories and in prolly every single one, used 'causing him, Sugreev, to lose consciousness', often more than once. Johns would have preferred a sentence calling for 'He, Kumbhakarn,' rather than 'him, Sugreev,' but that's different thing. Aug 7 at 17:23

Him can refer to any noun previously used if that noun takes masculine pronouns. In some (most?) European languages, inanimate objects can take masculine or feminine pronouns. In English, with a few exceptions, only people and animals take masculine or feminine pronouns.

You are proposing a rule that limits what a pronoun can refer to based on the antecedent's position in the previous clause or sentence. There is no such rule. For example, when I wrote you I wasn't even referring to a noun I had previously used.

In the example, the nouns are Kumbhakarn, Sugreev, head, and rock.

If you meant that the rock lost consciousness, you might say

Kumbhakarn then smashed Sugreev's head with a rock, causing it to lose consciousness.

but that makes no sense because the rock wasn't conscious to begin with.

From context, it's extremely unlikely that the action would render Kumbhakarn unconscious, so it's unambiguous that him refers to Sugreev. However it is acceptable to repeat Sugreev's name instead of using him. (I disagree with the statement in the previous answer that repeating the name is not good style.)

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    This is incorrect: inanimate objects may (and often do) take gendered pronouns. Among other things, there's a long tradition of referring to boats as "she" (see, eg., iwm.org.uk/history/why-do-ships-have-a-gender for usage). English doesn't have assigned genders like some languages, but using he/she to refer to objects is common. Granted: it's clear in this scenario that the rock isn't being referred to as "he", but anthropomorphism is totally a thing.
    – minnmass
    Aug 7 at 4:43
  • I forgot about boats. And even boats named after men are referred to as she. I edited the answer to acknowledge exceptions, but I disagree that this happens often. The answer from @guidot to this question indicates I'm not alone in thinking this is unusual. Aug 7 at 4:58
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    "You seem to think there is a rule that a pronoun can only refer to the subject of the previous clause or sentence" As much as I disagree with OP's conclusion; you've misread their argument. They're not saying that it can only be the subject. They're saying that "him" could only possible refer to either the exact subject (Kumbhakarn) or the exact object (Sugreev's head), not Sugreev himself who is grammatically neither the subject nor the object of the preceding clause. OP's actual reasoning is still incorrect, but your answer misrepresents it.
    – Flater
    Aug 7 at 6:07
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    @minnmass "but using he/she to refer to objects is common." It might be common for boats (and other vehicles) but it's pretty uncommon if not rare for almost any other inanimate object to be gendered in English. Aug 7 at 15:58
  • @DeanMacGregor It's rare enough that in common usage I see people refer to boats, countries, etc. as 'it' rather than the gendered pronouns basically every time. Aug 7 at 18:31

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