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A son looks to the affection of his parents. If they fail, they are expected to bring the case before the judge to seek justice.

In the second sentence, the pronoun 'they' is used as an anaphoric reference. Does 'they' refer to the word 'a son' or 'parents'? How to find it?

2 Answers 2

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The word "son" is singular and masculine, so it would be replaced by the pronoun, "he". The pronoun, "they" is plural, so you normally look for a plural reference. The only plural noun is "parents".

There are situations in which there is ambiguity. Consider "A son looks to the affection of his father. If he fails, he is expected..." This is ambiguous, and you would have to use context to understand the reference. But in your case, there is no such ambiguity, since grammatical number and gender only allow one interpretation: "They" refers "parents".

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  • -1 there is room , albeit small, for ambiguity.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 12 at 10:00
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Who brings the case before the judge?

"A son looks to the affection of his parents. If they fail, they are expected to bring the case before the judge to seek justice"

Logic would suggest the son brings a lawsuit against the parents, but the plural pronoun "they" suggests it refers to the parents. However, the singular "they" can also refer to an individual even though their gender seems apparent.

Which means that the OP's example will be ambiguous nowadays while fifty or sixty years ago it wouldn't have been.

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