"Why did God let Adam and Eve eat the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Why cannot he prevented evil? (Quoted from an article.)

  1. Those were the last questions he asked to his parents before they died.

  2. Those were the last questions he asked to his parents before his parents died.

  3. Those were the last questions I asked to my parents before they died.

• I know in the number 3 sentence, the pronoun"they" refers only to the "parents."

But if I read the number 1 it seems to me that the (he) is included in the (they) which leads to ambiguity. As to number 2, it looks like the sentence is committing a redudancy.The one who asked has not died.

So my question is, which one is correct, the number 2 or 1? And why?

P.S. Sorry if I'm just asking a simple question. I tried to goole it but didn't find a good answer.

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  • None of them are correct. "Those were the last question..." has an error of number agreement ("Those were" is plural and "question" is singular). It should be "That was the last question..." – sumelic Apr 30 '16 at 15:53
  • What sumelic said, plus, about "before they died": (3) is OK. (2) is wordy; (1) will be interpreted as before the parents died. If "before the speaker and his parents died" is meant, it would say "before they all died." Also, leave out the "to". – ab2 Apr 30 '16 at 17:46

There are a few other grammatical errors in your sentences. Since "those" refers to a plural object but "question" is singular, the first bit of your sentence should either be "those were the last questions" or "that was the last question," "this was the last question," "it was the last question," etc. Whatever. There are a lot of variations to pick from here.

Additionally, the "to" after "ask" should not be included.

Therefore, your three sentence options could be:

  1. That was the last question he asked his parents before they died.
  2. That was the last question he asked his parents before his parents died.
  3. That was the last question I asked my parents before they died.

Okay, so now they're all grammatically correct! To get to your actual issue,

  • Sentence 2 sounds and is redundant.
  • Sentence 3 is alright, of course, and no question of ambiguity there, although I'm guessing the first-person perspective isn't what you want here.
  • The best choice is Sentence 1. There's nothing particularly ambiguous about this one. Especially if this sentence is used in a context where it's clear that the subject ("he") is not dead yet, or the text has provided no reason that he should be dead, nobody is going to assume that "they" encapsulates "he" as well.
  • There's no reason to insert the "had" anywhere. And there is absolutely no reason to insert the "had" before "died", because you generally only use past perfect when one event takes place before another event, and no event under discussion happens after they die. – Peter Shor Apr 30 '16 at 18:01
  • The pronoun agreement to me is now clear. But I am now again confused why "to" is not necessary? – user169578 May 1 '16 at 14:09
  • Is there a rule when to omit "to"? – user169578 May 1 '16 at 14:25
  • Peter said not to insert, "had" but TRH said had is needed. Guys can you also clarify it? – user169578 May 1 '16 at 14:29
  • The past perfect is used to indicate that one action takes place before another action, and the asking takes place before the dying. So you could insert "had" before "asked". You don't need to, though, because the order of events is clear. However, "they died" should be in the simple past. – Peter Shor May 1 '16 at 23:43

All three sentences are technically correct -- except for the phrase 'asked to his parents', which I will explain further down.

Yes, there is potential ambiguity in the first. This would be resolved in a full discourse -- in the surrounding text, it could be made clear that the protagonist is still living, or that he outlived his parents for some time. The ambiguity could be resolved in the other direction within the sentence, confirming that they all died at the same time, by having 'Those were the last questions he asked his parents before they all died.'

The second is unambiguous, but stylistically awkward. In English there is a great dislike of repeating the same words within a sentence when there is any alternative -- this is why pronouns are so useful. We could resolve the ambiguity within the sentence if we knew the names of the parents, in which case we could have 'Those were the last questions he asked his parents before Henry and Beatrice died.' -- but then we would need to know (from the rest of the text) that his parents were indeed named Henry and Beatrice.

The third is fine, as it is obvious that the protagonist -- I or me -- is still alive (unless this is a story being told by a ghost!), or the story would not be being told.

As for 'asked to his parents', the verb 'ask' is a simple transitive verb, taking a direct object ('his parents'), not a prepositional phrase with 'to' indicating recipient ('to his parents'). Although, on further thinking, this would work: 'Those were the last questions he asked of his parents before they died.' The following sentence, however, would be fine: 'Those were the last questions he put to his parents before they died.'

  • This example of the verb "to ask" is not simply transitive. It's ditransitive. "His parents" is not a direct object. It is indirect. The direct object is the elided "that", referencing "the last questions". – Gary Botnovcan Jan 18 '17 at 1:13

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