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The text below is from a book published by Cambridge University Press. Does "this" refer to the entire bold part or only the "so" clause? If it refers to only the "so" clause, I will be off topic if I talk about cities like rising home prices in cities. Do you think the referent of "this" is clear?

In many countries around the world, rural people are moving to cities, so the population in the countryside is decreasing. Do you think this is a positive or a negative development?

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  • Good question. The migration is essentially one thing with two effects. But that's why I would specify this migration (A+B) or this loss (B). Mar 6 at 15:27
  • @YosefBaskin, do you mean you think the referent of "this" is unclear? Mar 6 at 15:36
  • Yes, it could mean anything. But I'd address the countryside loss (B alone) if I had to respond. Mar 6 at 15:43
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    "this" refers to the entire idea in the previous sentence. It's pretty clear that this is only one. [as the result of rural people moving to cities, population in the countryside is decreasing]. One point.
    – Lambie
    Mar 6 at 15:50
  • The question is ambiguous because it could mean positive or negative for the rural population moving to the city, for the rural population in general, for the combined population of city and countryside, or something else. You have to use your knowledge of the course to understand what is the most likely topic to be asked about. If it's purely a class about rural life then you may only comment on the rural population; if it's a module on migration, then talk about the people moving to the city; etc.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 6 at 17:08

3 Answers 3

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Sample from CUP book:

In many countries around the world, rural people are moving to cities, so the population in the countryside is decreasing. Do you think this is a positive or a negative development?

"this" refers to the entire idea in the previous sentence. It's pretty clear that this is the idea as a whole from the previous sentence and that it makes sense.

[In many countries, as the result of rural people moving to cities, population in the countryside is decreasing]. One complete idea or point.

We can use this to refer back to whole clauses and sentences and to previous parts of a text. This highlights the information referred to much more strongly than it. Writers often use this when a point or idea is to become an important part of the discussion that follows:

More and more people are discovering that Tai Chi is one of the most valuable forms of exercise. This has led to a big demand for classes. (This refers back to a whole sentence.)

Heavy rains and stormy conditions throughout the summer have led to severe shortages in strawberries and other soft fruits. This has led to price rises in many supermarkets and shops.

It, this and that_Cambridge Dictionary

The above is true in AmE and BrE.

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  • '"this" refers to the entire idea in the previous sentence. It's pretty clear that this is the idea as a whole from the previous sentence and that it makes sense.' This alleged clarity is based on what method, metric, or meaning that inheres to the reference?
    – J D
    Mar 6 at 21:25
  • LOL. My usage is accurate exactly because I was being ironic. Meaning does not inhere, nor is there method nor metric for systematically resolving anaphora. All you have is an intuition, and neither judgment nor justification supporting your claim so your answer, for all its verbosity, simply distills to the rationale "because I believe so". You don't HAVE TO provide an explanation, but simply saying "it's obvious" and providing additional examples doesn't make it true, sorry. (Nor should you read this to say I dispute the truth of your claim, something you seem wont to do.)
    – J D
    Mar 7 at 14:37
  • Thanks for sharing. :D
    – J D
    Mar 7 at 16:29
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It refers to the decrease. (The reference to "development" helps to clarify that in context.)

If we break it down, here's all of the possible references, and why they might or might not be candidates:

  • countries - plural, "this" is singular
  • people - plural, "this" is singular
  • moving - possible, but would not be idiomatic with "development"
  • cities - plural, "this" is singular
  • population - possible, but would not be idiomatic with "development" in this context
  • countryside - possible, but would not be idiomatic with "development" in this context
  • decreasing - being a change in status matches most closely with "development" in this context
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    Thanks for your answer but isn't "rural people moving to cities" also a development? Do you mean it is not idiomatic to say that rural people moving to cities is a development? Mar 6 at 16:01
  • [here are all the possible references]. This analysis just doesn't make the grade...
    – Lambie
    Mar 6 at 17:43
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rural people are moving to cities, so the population in the countryside is decreasing

The use of the demonstrative 'this' is an instance of endophora, so it necessarily ambiguous. So technically speaking, it's not clear to what the 'this' refers to, and one cannot infer one way or the other. Normally, in a verbal conversation, one would simply ask for clarification.

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  • But here we can tell what it refers to.
    – Lambie
    Mar 6 at 16:35
  • To explain my downvote: Yes, this is endophora, but endophora is typically unambiguous, as is this instance. The quoted example is not unclear. Mar 6 at 20:46
  • @AndyBonner And how do you justify the claim the quoted example is not unclear?
    – J D
    Mar 6 at 21:26
  • Sorry, I don't know how it could be explained. There isn't even more than one reasonable meaning to take from the quote. Any attempt to say that "this" refers to only part of the previous sentence is not a reasonable reading. Mar 7 at 0:17
  • @AndyBonner You needn't apologize. At least you recognize you have no reason, nor are able to reason persuasively to your conclusion. Given all of the lack of reason you concede, it begs the question why that would constitute a "reasonable" reading, but I know a dead-end when I see one. For the record, resolving anaphora in NLP is an extremely difficult problem, and there are no entirely algorithmic solutions for resolving endophora in discourse.
    – J D
    Mar 7 at 14:41

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