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A question from my GMAT class, which I was told is wrong and it was left for me to figure it out.

After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire and then searched for a tree to hang it from.

It sounds good when everyday conversation is considered, but what is wrong with it anyway? I tried to search but was bemused as to how to look for it.

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You can’t hang a fire from a tree. –  tchrist Apr 27 at 16:21
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oh so that's it. "it" would refer to the fire unless the second "and" wasn't replaced by a comma. so it is a pronoun usage error. –  vickyace Apr 27 at 16:28
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I think the problem may be 'to hang it from' , but apparently it looks ok to all of you. –  Josh61 Apr 27 at 17:04
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Real-world knowledge eliminates the ambiguity. There is nothing wrong with the sentence. –  Colin Fine Apr 27 at 20:29
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@ColinFine This sentence is saved from ambiguity by context beyond the meaning and grammar; the sentence grammar remains ambiguous. Similar sentence: "After butchering the deer, the hunter drank from his canteen and then searched for a tree to hang it from and drain it." With a different context, it is clear that the grammar could be improved; is he draining his canteen or the carcass? –  Patrick M Apr 28 at 17:22
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8 Answers 8

up vote 32 down vote accepted

After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire and then searched for a tree to hang IT from.

In the example above, IT cannot logically refer to fire, yet the sentence is ambiguous.

As long as both the nouns "deer" and "fire" can be followed by the pronoun IT since both make grammatical sense with it, what sounds like the simplest solution here is to repeat the noun "deer" to clear any ambiguity.

And so:

After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire and then searched for a tree to hang the deer from.

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Your suggestion is a good one, but it would help to be a lttle more explicit why the original sentence is problematic. –  bib Apr 27 at 19:38
    
@bib, does my answer sound any more explicit to you now, bib? :-) –  Elian Apr 27 at 20:18
    
+1 Yes, that helps. –  bib Apr 27 at 20:46
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I was like "why in the world is he talking about IT? What did they do again?" –  Arlaud Pierre Apr 28 at 12:57
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It can so logically refer to a fire. –  Cees Timmerman Apr 29 at 7:50
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There are two things at issue:

  1. The sentence ends with a preposition
  2. The pronoun "it" may not be interpreted correctly

Alternatively:

"After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire. He then searched for a tree from which to hang the cooked carcass."

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so the problem is with the "it" and "from" being together? –  vickyace Apr 27 at 17:51
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No........they are separate issues...........the preposition should not dangle.........................see tchrist's above....... –  Gary's Student Apr 27 at 17:57
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No, there’s nothing wrong amiss with putting a preposition at the end; indeed, it’s about the most natural phrasing in English that you can come up with. That’s one of those dumb myths promulgated by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. This sort of pied-piping leads to utter nonsense that there’s simply no excuse for. –  tchrist Apr 27 at 19:02
    
@tchrist .....Thanks for the information! Oxford Dictionaries agrees with you! –  Gary's Student Apr 27 at 19:08
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@Gary'sStudent: That was a joke. Prepositions are things you should never end a sentence WITH. Funny! Also, sentence fragments bad. And eschew obfuscatory sequipedalian language, avoid comma splices too. –  Eric Lippert Apr 28 at 16:10
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The problem, from a text analysis point of view, is that the reference it points to the referent fire, because that is the last word that precedes it that can linguistically be referenced by it. If you want your reference to point to deer, you must either restructure your sentence so deer is the last possible referent before it (example 1), or you must change it to something that cannot reference fire, but only deer (example 2).

Examples:

  1. The hunter extinguished the fire after roasting the deer and then searched for a tree to hang it from.
  2. After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire and then searched for a tree to hang the animal from.
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Your example 1 suffers the same problem, it is only disambiguated by the practical impossibility of hanging an extinguished fire from a tree. I read "it" as more naturally referring to the object of the sentence, not the object of "roasting the deer". Compare "I completed my novel after drinking a cup of tea and then sent it to my publisher". Structure is the same as example 1 but we resolve it the other way. –  Steve Jessop Apr 28 at 8:54
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While the answers that explain the pronoun reference issue might explain why your teacher calls this sentence wrong, you should know that, in common use, it's not wrong. It's barely awkward.

People are smarter than stupid computer programs and grammar formalisms. We all know that you can't hang a fire from a tree. Furthermore, the deer is fronted -- highlighted as the primary subject by placement in the first position of the sentence. So, in the context of a narrative of a hunter camping out, any of us would read that sentence and understand it, without any need to stop and puzzle over the binding of 'it'.

Personally, on the other hand, I find 'to hang it from' to be a bit clunky. If I had to pull one smoother idea out of my head, I'd offer '... for a tree where he could hang it.'

Note that I didn't feel any need to replace 'it' with 'the roasted deer,' as per my point above.

Pronoun reference confusion has to be cleaned up when the competing nouns are more or less interchangeable, so that there is, in fact, the potential for confusion. This is the source of an endless supply of unintentionally humorous headlines in newspapers. But when there are two things that disambiguate (the non-hang-ability of fires and the fronting of the deer), there's no problem to solve.

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The test question was not about the specifics mentioned in the question, but rather, it was about the construction of the sentence. As the question was given, it's clear that after some stumbling around, you can correctly identify what was meant. But substituting different words for the dear or the fire, etc, as in the example by Patrick M and others, the meaning is not so clear. So it's about reconstructing the sentence for the general case. –  Kevin Fegan Apr 28 at 19:49
    
This becomes a bigger problem for people who don't have English as a first language, which is why in any proper writing you should avoid it. I'm a fluent English reader, and reading that sentence gives me pause, I'd hate to think of what someone coming from German or Russian (very different structures) would think. –  Joshua Nurczyk Apr 28 at 21:09
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Your answer gets to the heart of the problem. The sentence makes the assumption that the reader understands that it is not possible to hang a fire from a tree, hence automatically substitutes "it" with deer. Obviously this would fail in a sentence like "After roasting the deer, the hunter moved the stone and then searched for a tree to hang it from." Even worse: "After roasting the deer, the hunter left his cave and then searched for a tree to hang it from." (ESL people can mistake cave to mean a hand-held object.) –  ADTC Apr 29 at 5:23
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You can so hang fire from a tree. –  Cees Timmerman Apr 29 at 7:51
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Well, just to be Devil's Advocate, I'd bet that if offered enough money, most people here could figure out how to hang a campfire from a tree.

Imagine the X Prize Foundation announcing this:

REWARD
$1,000,000
For Anyone Who Can
(Using Any Method)
Hang the Contents of an Extinguished Campfire
From a Tree

I'd do it pretty quickly!!
:D

(Never assume the hunter wasn't trying to do just that, cause you never know!)

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It can so be done. –  Cees Timmerman Apr 29 at 7:56
    
EXACTLY!!! I was looking for just those kinds of pictures but couldn't find any! Thank you for proving my point!! :D PLUS, there is NO proof whatsoever that the fire that was extinguished was in ANY way whatsoever used to cook the deer -- this is strictly assumption based on circumstantial evidence at best. The fire could have been the fire used to light the hunter's cigarette. And, the word "it" could be a very casual way of referring to Stephen King's novel of the same name, which certainly deserved to be hung from a tree in the woods. –  Thom Blair III Apr 29 at 9:05
    
In addition, there is no proof that there necessarily is anything wrong with the question -- it could simply have been a test to see if anyone could think outside the box enough to see all the near-infinite possibilities that grammatically and logically could be construed. In fact, perhaps it was part of a test to see if you could become a lawyer, an advocate, perhaps even for the devil him(or her)self. Or for AIG. Or the Lehmen Brothers. –  Thom Blair III Apr 29 at 9:10
    
It's also possible that the thing wrong with the sentence is that it was intended to be a passage from a popular Swahili proverb, yet through the most bizarre coincidence of typographical errors and chance, actually was printed with the Roman alphabet instead and, amazingly enough, actually spelled some words that bear a very striking resemblance, both in spelling and grammar, to English words. Potentially possible, you have to admit. Even Spock would have to agree it's technically possible. –  Thom Blair III Apr 29 at 9:15
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In formal writing, one does not end a sentence with a preposition. The formally correct way to write this sentence is: After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire and then searched for a tree from which to hang it.

This is one of those hold-over rules from prescriptive grammarians of the 19th century that has little to do with actual modern usage - even in fairly formal settings. Winston Churchill is alleged to have responded to a complaint that he ended a sentence with the preposition saying that "That's one of those bits of nonsense up with which I shall not put".

If you dig enough, you can find an explanation for the rule - a similar rule against splitting infinitives comes from Latin, where infinitives are single words so can't be split! - but it really doesn't much matter.

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"After roasting the deer, the hunter extinguished the fire and then searched for a tree to hang it from."

This is a compound sentenance with a shared subject (the hunter) and two "verb-object" constructs ( "extinguished the fire" and "searched for a tree"). The phrase "to hang it from" is adverbial, describing why he searched and the phrase "After roasting the deer" is adverbial, describing when he searched relitive to extinghishing the fire. Since a pronoun must refer to the grammatical object, it could only refer to the fire.

The subject of the sentenance is the hunter and the object is the fire. These are connected by the verb "extinguished"( SEE "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object_(grammar)" ).

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The actual problem is that you have ended your answer with a preposition. It should read, "a tree from which to hang it". This is an example of a common spoken grammatical error that "sounds right" to a lot of people who have learned it wrong. There are many other examples of common spoken English being incorrect, such as "me and Julie went to the store" or "myself and Julie went to the store". The correct grammar is "Julie and I went to the store." I even hear people say, "He gave the tickets to I and Julie" or "He gave the tickets to myself and Julie". It should be, "He gave the tickets to Julie and me." Unfortunately, many of us have parents whose grammar is poor, and they taught us to speak incorrectly.

More extreme examples are common in the African-American community, where grammatical errors are so common in their spoken language that a proposal to name their language "Ebonics" was circulated for awhile. So just because something "sounds right" does NOT make it correct!

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So, basically, you're happy that a bunch of people in the 19th century made up the rule "You can't end a sentence with a preposition" but not that a bunch of people in the 20th and 21st centuries made up the rule "Actually, it's OK to end a sentence with a preposition." Please justify. –  David Richerby Apr 29 at 11:38
    
The fellows in the 19th centuries are long dead. Thus we win. –  Oldcat Jun 5 at 23:57
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