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Lindsey told Jessica that she had cancer.

Who had cancer? Is there any rule in English to claim it definitely?

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11  
No - that statement is ambiguous. The only way to clarify it is with more context. –  Matt Эллен Mar 25 '12 at 11:12
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An admittedly less than elegant solution is to disambiguate by repeating the noun (in brackets): Lindsey told Jessica that she (Lindsey) had cancer or Lindsey told Jessica that she (Jessica) had cancer. –  Shoe Mar 25 '12 at 16:20
    
If Lindsey was a man, the ambiguity would be gone. –  J.R. Mar 25 '12 at 18:59
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1 Answer

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This sentence is syntactically correct but semantically ambiguous. One may rewrite it as

Lindsey told Jessica that the former had cancer

to mean that Lindsey had cancer or

Lindsey told Jessica that the latter had cancer

to mean that Jessica had cancer.

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So there's no rule to determine which noun the pronoun refers? For example, in Russian there's a rule that a pronoun should refer to the last noun in front of it. –  Nikkou Mar 25 '12 at 11:49
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@FronSTAN: there is no such rule in Russian. All native speakers of Russian in our chat right now find the Russian equivalent of the sentence in question just as ambiguous. –  RegDwigнt Mar 25 '12 at 12:11
    
@RegDwight Ѭſ道: Yeah, of course it can be ambigous in live speech but the rule exists according to standarts of Russian language. From Wikipedia: «Предложения «Мы отдали бананы обезьянам, потому что они были голодные» и «Мы отдали бананы обезьянам, потому что они были перезрелыми» похожи по синтаксической структуре. В одном из них местоимение они относится к обезьянам, а в другом — к бананам. ... По нормам русского языка второе предложение некорректно, потому что в нем местоимение ссылается не на последнее подходящее слово, однако в живой речи такое предложение очень даже может встретиться.» –  Nikkou Mar 25 '12 at 12:20
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I think Will's answer is good (+1), but the wording of his suggested rewrites is not something you would write in, say, a fictional story. It is too formal. You could write something like -- Lindsey told Jessica, "I have cancer." Or -- Lindsey told Jessica, "You have cancer." –  JLG Mar 25 '12 at 15:01
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@JLG - although in a story, unless it's set in a hospital and Lindsay was the doctor it's likely that first –  mgb Mar 25 '12 at 15:36
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