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I was helping my brother study for the SAT, and we came across this sentence:

While it was different from all the other classes he had taken, Eric was unhappy with his psychology class.

The answer was that there are no errors in that sentence. But my brother thinks that the noun following the comma should be consistent with the "it" in the first clause. I have come across sentences of this form in the works of well-known writers, but I do not know how to explain to him why this is correct.

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You can write “…, his psychology class made Eric unhappy.” if that makes you happy. But then it introduces Eric even later in the sentence, which may also be frowned upon as being suboptimal. –  Mr Lister Oct 23 '12 at 6:10
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@Noah: usually it refers to the subject of the sentence. In this case, it would refer to Eric, which is definitely not what the author intended, and the reader must make a double-take, re-parse and match up it with class. –  SF. Oct 23 '12 at 6:34
    
@Mr Lister: You can also write, "While it ..., the psychology class made Eric unhappy." I don't see this as suboptimal for any particular reason discernible from context. If the end of the S is where the most important information goes (as Strunk said it was back in 1918), the final thought in the S is that Eric was unhappy, a declarative, instead of with his psychology class, a prepositional phrase. There is no such thing as an "optimal sentence" outside a context. –  user21497 Oct 23 '12 at 6:36
    
@SF.: This seems an example of writing like one speaks. It needs a rewrite, of course: Although it was different from the rest, Eric was still unhappy with it. This seems to me normal spoken English, but it's not good written formal English for two reasons: (a) using while instead of although, & (b) changing sentence structure for the main clause by making Eric the subject instead of keeping the psychology class as the subject. It's a change of topic (focus) as well. Was the writer drunk when all he wrote the S? –  user21497 Oct 23 '12 at 6:49
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The question's author felt there were no errors; however, that doesn't mean the sentence couldn't be improved – and therein lies one of the tricky parts of exams like this. I think you're brother's suggested edit would result in an improved sentence, but I don't think the original sentence is incorrect. (@Kris: Lest I be misconstrued as the one who voted to close, I'm not answering you, I'm just weighing in.) –  J.R. Oct 23 '12 at 9:15
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5 Answers

It's always a mistake to think of grammar as involving commas and words following them. Grammar is clauses and phrases and predicates; there are no commas in language, only in writing.

In this case, there are two clauses:

  1. ((Eric's) psychology class) was different from the other classes (that) (Eric) had taken
  2. (Eric) was unhappy with ((Eric's) psychology class)

The pieces in parentheses are either deletable markers (like relative that) or noun phrases that can be replaced by pronouns (like he, his, and it) in the appropriate circumstances.

The problem is what the appropriate circumstances are for pronominalization, and that's what this question tests.

Pronouns always refer to someone or something that's obvious in context. When the context consists of only one sentence, the word denoting the person or thing (called the "antecedent") must be in the same sentence as the pronoun in order to be obvious.

But not just anywhere in that sentence. As the word antecedent (Latin for 'going before') suggests, normally the antecedent is spoken before the pronoun.

  • He likes Eric's psychology class

is a perfectly good sentence, provided he doesn't refer to Eric; otherwise it's garbage. Switch them and it's fine. But this sentence has two clauses: sentence 2 is the main clause, and sentence 1 is a subordinate clause; this makes a difference for pronoun usage.

If the antecedent is in the main clause, and the pronoun is in a clause subordinate to the main clause, then a pronoun can come before its antecedent. For example, consider some simpler sentences:

  • Before Marilyn became president I knew her.
  • I knew Marilyn before she became president.
  • Before she became president I knew Marilyn.
  • *I knew her before Marilyn became president.

The first three are fine; in the first two, the antecedent (Marilyn) comes before the pronoun (her or she). In the third, the antecedent is in the main clause but the pronoun is in a subordinate clause, so even though the pronoun precedes its antecedent, it's OK. That's the same structure as the SAT sentence, and that's why the answer says there is no mistake.

But the fourth one is ungrammatical (that's what the asterisk indicates), because the pronoun is in the main clause and it precedes its antecedent, which is in a subordinate clause. So the SAT question tests whether you know the rule that distinguishes the third OK case from the fourth ungrammatical case.

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I don't see that the fourth is ungrammatical. Isn't it just that her cannot refer to Marilyn? (Langacker's rule). –  Barrie England Oct 23 '12 at 6:40
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It's ungrammatical only when her refers to Marilyn, which is the situation being discussed. Otherwise, as you point out, it's fine. –  John Lawler Oct 23 '12 at 6:52
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Might it be possible that to some speakers, sentence 3 is ungrammatical as well? –  reinierpost Oct 23 '12 at 14:12
    
Some speakers might prefer a comma intonation after the subordinate clause in (3). I know I would. –  John Lawler Oct 23 '12 at 17:00
    
I certainly think (4) is a bit "off", but it doesn't seem disastrous to me. And in a context like An alternative explanation is that his wife married him before Peter took the lease of Clinkstyle. I can't really say it bothers me at all. So I'm glad I don't have to pass a SAT test, since this is clearly not a rule that I've picked up just using, hearing, and reading English all my life. –  FumbleFingers Oct 26 '12 at 3:56
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Perhaps your brother would understand it better if he tried this little test - switch the two subjects in the sentence and you can see that it still makes sense:

While his psychology class was different from all the other classes he had taken, Eric was unhappy with it.

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Two subjects? (I'm not sure that's what you meant.) –  JLG Oct 23 '12 at 5:23
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I think she means the subjects of the two clauses: main clause = Eric [who was unhappy] and subordinate clause = it (psych class) [which was different]. She's writing like she talks. –  user21497 Oct 23 '12 at 6:40
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If I understand the rule your brother is imagining, it's incorrect. The rule for pronouns in the English language is that the listener/reader must use common sense to figure out what the pronouns refers to and the speaker/writer must ensure it's unambiguous. Most of the time, we do this so easily, we don't even notice.

There is no grammatical rule to mechanically tell you what noun a pronoun refers to. There is no way to use a pronoun to refer to a noun in way that is wrong grammatically.

For example:

When Mary saw the beautiful blue bicycle in the store window, she knew she had to have it.

There is no question the "it" is the bicycle, not the window. Why? Because we know that people want bicycles, not windows.

There was a beautiful blue bicycle proudly displayed in the store window. When Mary looked through the window, she knew she had to have it.

Again, "it" must be the bicycle. Not the window.

It's not the grammar that tells you this, it's the logic and common sense. Grammar is always ambiguous about what noun a pronoun refers to.

The supervisors told the workers that they would receive a bonus.

Who would receive the bonus -- the supervisors or the workers? You can't tell and grammar doesn't help you. But if the previous sentences talk about a bonus and make it clear would would receive it, then this is fine.

You can even do this:

Although Jack was quite wealthy, he didn't put any of it to good use.

Any of what? Clearly it must mean his wealth, even though there's no mentioned noun for it to refer to.

Grammar doesn't provide the rules for this, logic does. It can only be wrong if it's confusing or ambiguous.

However, SF. pointed out a problem with the example sentence. When we hear the word "Eric", we haven't yet heard the words "psychology class", so we can't tell correctly what the "it" refers to.

Because "Eric" is in the place the referent would usually go, we try to make "Eric" be the "it", which fails because Eric is something we would not expect to be compared to classes Eric has taken. This causes confusion in the listener/reader that can only be resolved at the end of the sentence.

This type of confusing construction, while grammatically and logically valid, should be avoided.

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Still, the structure of the example borders on Garden Path sentences. The structure is correct and the logic is all there, but it requires us to make a double-take to parse it. Would you claim that when our purpose is not to confuse the reader but to convey the basic message, using garden path sentences is a good idea? –  SF. Oct 23 '12 at 7:35
    
None of these are garden path sentences at all. They would only be garden path sentences if you intended a meaning other than the most obvious one. However, my point is that which meaning is obvious comes not from grammar but from logic. Everyone one of these is completely ordinary except the last, which is jarring largely because people don't realize there's no grammatical requirement that the noun reference be mentioned nearby. (And, of course, it should be avoided because it's jarring, even though it's valid grammar.) –  David Schwartz Oct 23 '12 at 8:04
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None of your examples, true, but the asker's example is, leading us at first to believe Eric is it. –  SF. Oct 23 '12 at 8:07
    
Yes, you are correct. The problem is that the context we need to figure out what "it" refers to only comes much later in the sentence. When we hear the word "Eric", we hit a point of confusion. (Perhaps you should point that out in an answer. I updated mine.) –  David Schwartz Oct 23 '12 at 8:09
    
"When Mary saw the beautiful blue bicycle in the window of the unlit store, she wished it were brighter." –  Kris Oct 23 '12 at 10:00
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The sentence is grammatical and, when spoken, the intonation and context will help make the meaning clear. In writing, however, there is a risk that its structure will distract the reader in spite of being grammatical. After a fairly long introductory subordinate clause (While . . . taken), the reader expects an early indication of what it refers to, but is not given it until the end of the sentence.

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That, and the fact that the early use of it in the sentence creates two issues with it: 1. Creates a hanging reference that needs to be resolved further down the sentence. 2. Worse, it could be wrongly interpreted as the existential it (before proceeding to the rest of the sentence, at least). –  Kris Oct 23 '12 at 7:58
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Just goes to prove that grammaticality is a poor predictor of good style and sentence structure. –  user21497 Oct 23 '12 at 10:26
    
@BillFranke: Indeed. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement. –  Barrie England Oct 23 '12 at 10:32
    
And, contra some prescriptivists, it is not even a necessary requirement for clarity. –  Colin Fine Oct 23 '12 at 12:42
    
@ColinFine: I suppose it depends what we mean by grammatical. Nonstandard dialects are grammatical. –  Barrie England Oct 23 '12 at 12:52
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Grammatically the sentence is fine. It's not logical though, as there's no generally accepted reason to connect Eric's dislike for that class with the class being different or the same as other classes. It's as if two separate unfinished sentences were joined for no good reason.

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I was drawn to an inference that one could expect Eric to like the psychology class because it is different than the others. –  Kristina Lopez Oct 23 '12 at 14:10
    
But it doesn't say Eric liked or disliked the other classes. Henceforth the inference is a guess? –  Chris Oct 23 '12 at 14:19
    
I'd call it "reading between the lines" but an assumption that would require confirmation. –  Kristina Lopez Oct 23 '12 at 14:29
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