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I'm facing a difficulty about referring to previously mentioned words. It's something that bothers me a lot about the English language. Please consider

Mathematicians can use these theorems to their advantage.

versus

Mathematicians can, to their advantage, use these theorems.

Which is more correct? The first sounds more natural and most people would probably say it's correct.

However, I would think that technically the first is wrong and the second is correct, even though the second is a bit more unnatural. Why? Because in the first, their is referring to the last thing mentioned, namely these theorems, which is absurd. In the second, their actually refers to the mathematicians, as it should.

What do you think? If the first is (also) correct, my question is simply this: Since when can sentences be counted as being correct just because they happen to make sense from the context?

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2  
The first is correct and preferable. The second is too contrived and does not flow well. As to whether the second is less ambiguous- I say, "No." 'their' can just as easily refer to either mathematicians or theorems in either sentence. –  Jim May 20 '12 at 21:05
1  
In this very particular instance, there is no ambiguity, 'their' only refers to the mathematicians. It's a bit too much of far-reaching personification to think a theorem coud use something to its advantage (its the person trying to write a theorem who could have an advantage). –  Mitch May 21 '12 at 1:01
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I agree with Jim about the first being preferable – in most situations. However, context is everything. If I was trying to stress what a huge advantage these theorums provide, I might use the second one (but not because I felt a need to get the word "their" closer to the word "mathematicians"). –  J.R. May 21 '12 at 9:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The first sentence is fine.

The purpose of a language is to communicate, not to construct something that's logically rigorous. This means that occasionally, there are grammatical sentences that are ambiguous in meaning (eg He bowled a maiden over). However, your first sentence isn't really ambiguous - common sense prevails, and "their" can only reasonably be understood to refer to the mathematicians.

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I agree with David. The first sentence may not be technically right, but its comprehensibility overrules the big insertion of a clause in the second. Most people reading the sentence will give a clear understanding that "their" refers to mathematicians. The second sentence has a complete thought, with something separate jammed in the middle. If this is done over and over again in an excerpt, the reader would have a harder time understanding.

There is ambiguity, but at the same time, because of how much we're used to using certain methods of language, there is no ambiguity.

Also, the first sentence could be reworded into:

Mathematicians can use these theorems as an advantage.

or

The use of these theorems provide Mathematicians with a definite advantage.

Plus some wording depending on the context. :)

Hope this helps!

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Pronominal coreference is not as simple as you make it sound. A pronoun does not in fact have to refer to "the last thing mentioned".

An English pronoun can be coreferential with any noun phrase at all, preceding or not, in the same sentence or not, providing certain conditions are met. The most important condition is that a pronoun may not both precede and command its antecedent.

It can neither precede nor command its antecedent

  • The old man stood up, after he read the paper.

It may precede but not command its antecedent

  • After he read the paper, the old man stood up.

It may command but not precede its antecedent

  • After the old man read the paper, he stood up.

But it can't do both

  • *He stood up, after the old man read the paper.

That sentence is not ungrammatical, but he and the old man can't refer to the same person.

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+1 for giving clear examples with your explanation. –  Cameron May 20 '12 at 21:29
    
What does "command its antecedent" mean? –  Casey Chu May 21 '12 at 6:24
    
Antecedent means the noun that the pronoun refers to. Every constituent in one clause Commands every other constituent in that clause, and also commands every constituent in clauses subordinate to that clause, but does not command constituents in higher clauses. (You can see why syntacticians use tree diagrams -- it makes these relations obvious.) –  John Lawler May 21 '12 at 12:52

It seems to me that the second one (Mathematicians can, to their advantage, use these theorems) would be better if you say it in some sort of argument; when you say it like that, it makes it sound like you are emphasizing that it is to their advantage.

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