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I meet this sentence:

In the early days, very few people interacted directly with database systems, although without realizing it they interacted with databases indirectly — through printed reports such as credit card statements, or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents.

Does they here stand for very few people who interacted directly with database systems?

If it is, then the first part of this sentence means they interacted directly, but the second part means they interacted indirectly.

I am a little confused.

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This is a common error in sentence structure. It needs rephrasing as it does not make proper sense as it is. The intended reference of they is to people. A simple solution would be something like "Few of the people who interacted... actually realized the fact, as ..." –  Kris Sep 12 '12 at 14:10

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's bad grammar. In point of fact, they must, as you say refer to very few people, which gives a strained but just about comprehensible sentence. What the author evidently intended, however, is people or many people. Probably the best wording would be to leave they as it is, and replace very few people with people rarely.

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+1 for untangling the meaning with the reformulation "people rarely". –  Canis Lupus Sep 13 '12 at 0:27

In the early days, very few people interacted directly with database systems, although without realizing it they interacted with databases indirectly — through printed reports such as credit card statements, or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents.

'they' is talking about the very few 'people'. While I know 'very few people' is the phrase, but directly, it is still 'people'.

As for it not making any sense, I agree with others that it is bad grammar. However, what they are saying is, is that these people 'in the early days', directly interacted with database systems although indirectly were working with databases through other mediums. These other mediums were the

'printed reports such as credit card statements, or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents'

And those mediums (I'm repeating just to stress) were why it was considered 'indirectly'.

Hope this clears things up for you!

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'They' in that sentence refers to 'people', not 'very few people'.

Please see below a more detailed answer.

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Why they means people, instead of very few people? Can you explain it in terms of grammar? –  Yishu Fang Sep 12 '12 at 14:08
1  
That inference cannot be drawn directly from the sentence as it is. The reader will of course understand it that way through insight. –  Kris Sep 12 '12 at 14:11
    
I have consulted with my expert, and the grammer of the original sentence is incorrect. The pronoun 'they' should read 'others'. –  Brian Litton Sep 12 '12 at 15:18
    
@Brian Litton: I think your expert is wrong. OP's statement can and probably does mean that all people (not just those who "interacted directly with databases") would also have interacted indirectly with databases without realising it. There's certainly no issue of "grammar" involved that I can see. Consider "Only some Americans will vote, but most of them will have an opinion on the election" (where "them" = all Americans). –  FumbleFingers Sep 12 '12 at 15:52
    
There is a grammatical problem here. In order for a pronoun to be clearly understood, there must be a clearly understood antecedent. In other words, a noun to which the pronoun refers. The only antecedent in this passage is 'very few people'. So, grammatically, the pronoun 'they' can only correctly refer to 'very few people'. If the intent of the original passage was to differenciate between 'very few people' and the rest of the world, and the pronoun 'they' refers to the rest of the world, then the passage has no clear antecedent to the pronoun 'they', thus, a grammatical problem. –  Brian Litton Sep 12 '12 at 16:21

I think what the sentence intends to mean (but does not say) is

In the early days, very few people interacted directly with database systems, although without realizing it many other people interacted with databases indirectly — through printed reports such as credit card statements, or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents.

SUPPLEMENT: As indicated in FumbleFingers' comment below, there is no reason to exclude the few who interacted directly from those who interacted indirectly. As such, a better construction might be

In the early days, very few people interacted directly with database systems, although without realizing it many people interacted with databases indirectly — through printed reports such as credit card statements, or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents.

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1  
Per my comment to Brian Litton's answer, I think there's no reason to exclude the few people who (knowingly or not) interacted directly with databases from those who unknowingly interacted indirectly. –  FumbleFingers Sep 12 '12 at 15:55
    
@FumbleFingers You are right. See supplement in answer. –  bib Sep 12 '12 at 16:07
    
I'm still sceptical. Both grammatically and semantically, I see no reason to assume "they" needs to refer to anything other than "[all] people". –  FumbleFingers Sep 12 '12 at 16:31
    
@FumbleFingers I agree that it should refer to [all] people*, but I think that the statement as presented is ambiguous and could easuily be interpreted to mean they only referes to the very few. –  bib Sep 12 '12 at 17:13
    
Semantically that interpretation would be perverse in the extreme - why on earth would the writer want to single out only those few when talking about indirect interaction with databases? Grammatically, why does a few have to be dragged in when you're looking for the antecedent referent of they? What about "Many French people don't speak English, but they all know there are many languages besides their own". Does that allow for some who do speak English, but are unaware there are many other languages besides French and English? –  FumbleFingers Sep 12 '12 at 17:35

Original passage:

In the early days, very few people interacted directly with database systems, although without realizing it they interacted with databases indirectly — through printed reports such as credit card statements, or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents.


Grammatical analysis:

Let me begin by minimally describing this sentence grammatically. (according to The Perrin-Smith Handbook of Current English)

In the early days, very few people(Subject) interacted(Verb) directly with database systems(Object), although(Subordinating Conjunction) without realizing it they(S) interacted(V) with databases (O) indirectly — through printed reports such as credit card statements(Subordinate Clause), or through agents such as bank tellers and airline reservation agents(S C).


If a set of people (very few in number) interact directly (see below) with a database, by definition*, they are aware of it.  

People who interact indirectly with a database, may or may not be aware of it. In the original passage, 'they' interact with a database 'without realizing it'.

Logic dictates that these two groups of people are separate and distinct from each other.

*directly: plainly and without implication (Webster's Third New International Dictionary)


Summary:

There is a grammatical problem in the original.  In order for a pronoun to be clearly understood, there must be a clearly understood antecedent.  In other words, a noun to which the pronoun clearly refers.  Again according to Perrin-Smith, 'The antecedent of a pronoun should be a definite noun, not one that is implied'.

The only antecedent in this passage is 'very few people'.  So, grammatically, the pronoun 'they' can only correctly refer to 'very few people'.

By using the words 'directly', and 'although', and the phrase 'without realizing it' the writer has explicitly stated that 'they' and 'very few people' are separate and distinct groups.


Therefore, to answer the question:  "What does the 'they' stand for here?" 'They' refers to some or all of the persons who are not identified by 'very few people'. Brian Litton 2012

This is in complete agreement with my original answer.


I would rewrite the original passage as follows:

In the early days, very few people interacted directly with database systems. Others,  without realizing it, interacted with databases indirectly through printed reports such as credit card statements, or through representatives such as bank tellers and travel agents.

Of course there are several possible ways to rewrite the passage while retaining the original meaning and avoid the ambiguity of the original pronoun/antecedent disagreement.

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