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Is this allowable? It is fairly clear what is meant, and yet one cannot know for sure which object is being referred to each time "them" is used.

e.g.

Sweets are bad for your teeth. If you eat them, it could damage them.

or even the other way around....

Sweets are bad for your teeth. You could damage them if you eat them.

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1  
I try to eat my sweets without damaging them. –  user16269 Mar 13 '12 at 8:52
    
Best not to try to eat your teeth then. –  Urbycoz Mar 13 '12 at 8:54
    
Why can't you know for sure which object is being referred to each time "them" is used? Clearly, eating teeth won't damage sweets. If you mean the grammar alone won't tell you, that's true of most English sentences. ("Mary saw the beautiful blue color of the bicycle in the store window. She really wanted it." Does she want the store, the window, the color, or the bicycle?) –  David Schwartz Mar 13 '12 at 8:57
    
@DavidSchwartz So grammatically it's ok. But, in terms of clarity it's not so good. Would you say it is better to avoid it as a rule, or is it very dependant on whether the sentence can be misinterpreted? –  Urbycoz Mar 13 '12 at 9:03
    
Where it's clear, it's fine. But if it can be misinterpreted, avoid it. If Mary really wanted that color for the floors in her kitchen or wanted the shop window for an art project ... –  David Schwartz Mar 13 '12 at 9:05
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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Allowable? Sure. Recommended? No.

When writing, sometimes an awkward sentence reveals that a revision is in order.

In this case, you could try to clarify them thems:

Sweets are bad for your teeth. You could damage your teeth if you eat sweets.

but then the second sentence sounds rather repetitious. Best to just get directly to your point:

Sweets can damage your teeth.

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Do you have a problem with: "Many people are unable or unwilling to leave an abusive spouse. They think they need them. They think they can't live without them. But the truth is, they are better off without them." –  David Schwartz Mar 13 '12 at 9:11
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@David Schwartz: That didn't read awkward to me. It's sad, but not awkward. –  J.R. Mar 13 '12 at 9:19
    
We don't even notice if it's grammatically ambiguous provided that logic makes it very clear what is what. There are so many "they"s and "them"s in there, all of which are grammatically ambiguous. However, if it's even a little bit logically unclear, it often reads badly. –  David Schwartz Mar 13 '12 at 9:22
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@David Schwartz: Agreed, which is why I said awkwardness provides the clue that revisions are in order - not the use of pronouns - and why I recommended a revision "in this case." –  J.R. Mar 13 '12 at 9:35
    
+1 for "Recommended? No." It's not the fact that it's grammatically ambiguous - which is largely irrelevant, since semantically there's no issue at all. It's the fact that it's anomalous, and therefore distracts from the purpose of making a statement (to communicate) by making us notice the choice of phrasing rather than the intended meaning. –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '12 at 14:24
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