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What is different between "those of competitors" and "competitors" in this sentence?

But if she eased, her first steps would lag behind those of her competitors.

But if she eased, her first steps would lag behind her competitors.

and which one is correct? I think both of them are grammatically correct.

Do we have special rules for "those of something"?

  • Well, of course those refers to steps. Am I missing something here? Of course they aren't interchangeable. – M.A.R. Apr 2 '15 at 14:04
  • Yes, you are right. I mean, Are both of the sentences semantically correct? – user115688 Apr 2 '15 at 14:08
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    Are those examples a direct quote? You changed from him to her, if that's the quote I should change my answer. – zeel Apr 2 '15 at 22:43
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    The second version is very common in speech, where speakers aren't being precise, but it is typically corrected by an editor for written works, because the comparison is between her steps and the steps of her competitors, not between her steps and the competitors themselves. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 3 '15 at 12:13
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The difference in meaning is fairly subtle.

But if he eased, his first steps would lag behind those of his competitors.

We are referring to the "steps" a person possesses, and the word "those" refers back to them. You could write this as:

But if he eased, his first steps would lag behind the steps of his competitors.

That is, a thing he possesses (steps) lag behind a thing they possess (their steps)

However, with the second sentence:

But if he eased, his first steps would lag behind his competitors.

We do not refer back to "steps" anymore, "his competitors" refers to the people themselves, not something they possess.

While not technically wrong, AFAIK, this sentence is awkward. People are similar things, steps are similar things, people are not similar to steps - so comparing their position (behind) is awkward.

An interesting note however:

But if he eased, his first steps would lag behind his competitors'.

Is possessive, and therefore correct. Though it may still sound just as awkward to some readers, and sounds identical spoken.

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    But if it's written his first steps would lag behind his competitors' [steps] it's correct again. Then the only difference is that the first sentence sounds more passive (which makes the second actually sound slightly more natural) – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 2 '15 at 21:07
  • True, I never realized that my mind even noticed an apostrophe like that. But somehow that single tiny character does make it sound less awkward in my head. – zeel Apr 2 '15 at 22:39
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But if he eased, his first steps would lag behind those of his competitors.

means behind the steps of his competitors while

But if he eased, his first steps would lag behind his competitors.

just means his steps are behind his competitors as a whole body.

The second sentence has a poor meaning since you are not talking about steps.

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