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I often have problem with hanging modifiers. In the sentence:

This project's vision follows from its predecessor's.

Is the reference "its" referring to the project or the vision? My intention is to refer the word "its" to the project. But I am not sure if the referent has gotten across clearly.

If this is correct, then what should I use if I want to refer to the vision instead?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

If you had omitted the apostrophe from predecessor's, it would refer to the previous project itself. The way you have it now, the vision is being referred to, though it would be very difficult to tell if I had heard the sentence rather than reading it.

If you wanted to be clearer that you were referring to the previous project's vision specifically, I offer this rewrite:

This project's vision follows from that of its predecessor.

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Thanks! It seems to be a very difficult thing to identify the correct reference; just a apostrophe alone is enough to change the reference. The rewrite you suggested really makes the whole thing reads clearer. The only thing though is I wouldn't have thought of phrasing it in this way, with an additional "from that of". The most I may add is simply "from its predecessor", which still doesn't sound as good as your suggestion. What additional meaning does it give to the sentence by adding "from that of"? –  xenon Mar 26 '12 at 17:41
    
The inclusion of that of serves to point back to the vision so that its can point back to the project itself. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 26 '12 at 20:10

There is no rule in English that you can apply mechanically to determine which of several competing noun phrases is the antecedent of a pronoun. A bald assertion that "it correctly refers to xxx" is probably wrong.

However, there may be a pragmatic reason to identify one or other possible antecedent. Your use of the possessive "predecessor's" matches "project's", and suggests that the predecessor is the same kind of thing as the project, and therefore that "its" refers to the project; but this conclusion is pragmatic not formal, and probably also depends on the particular words (eg knowing that the predecessor of something is likely to be the same kind of entity as the something).

Having said which, I concur with cornbread ninja that there are clearer ways of wording it.

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