Can anyone please explain why this sentence is incorrect?

When Russell Wallace and Darwin independently proposed similar theories, Darwin had already accumulated extensive evidence with which to support his ideas.

I thought the error was at with which because it seems wordy; to me, evidence to support an idea sounds better and less wordy than evidence with which to support an idea. But the error occurs at his, and it's an ambiguous pronoun error.

Thank you!

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    Because it's unclear if Darwin had evidence to support his own ideas or evidence to support Wallace's ideas. The "his" could refer to either of them.
    – Roger
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:13
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    @Roger: That would be an extremely perverse interpretation. Why on earth would Darwin accumulate evidence with which to support Wallace's ideas, if they were working independently? (It's important to note that grammatically, with which to [do something] implies that was the reason why Darwin accumulated the evidence.) Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:58
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    @mickeydd3940312: Per my comment and Jon's answer, whoever told you the sentence is "incorrect" is worse than a pedant. He's an idiot. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:59
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    @FumbleFingers I'm not saying it wouldn't be a strange way to interpret it. Common sense would say that it's obvious the pronoun refers to Darwin. I'm just saying that in the purest grammatical sense, the pronoun is ambiguous. That's why I made it as a comment and not an answer.
    – Roger
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 18:02
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    @FumbleFingers the "idiot" in question would seem to be a website helping students with the exams taken to enter the US third-level education system. This is quite depressing.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 19:49

2 Answers 2


The argument made in this example paper is that his could perhaps apply to Darwin, or perhaps to Russell Wallace.

Personally, I think this is nonsense, it's perfectly clear that his refers:

  1. To the only male person previously referred to on their own, viz. Darwin.
  2. To the male person most recently referred to, viz. Darwin.
  3. To the only male person referred to in this clause, viz. Darwin.

I also don't see anything wrong with any of the rest of it. The problem lies in the examiner's reading comprehension, not the sentence. I'm glad I never had to do SATs.

  • 1
    Quite. I'm sometimes amazed at the ignorance shown by those (presumably, non-native speakers) who purport to be teaching English or testing a learner's knowledge. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 17:02
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    @FumbleFingers I'd say being a native speaker can be the more fraught, considering the stuff that fits into "you just do" levels of knowledge much of the time. Certainly, I know I've committed some similar errors when answering questions here that I then caught and changed.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 17:24
  • Well yes, in some contexts, maybe. In this specific case, I think you could perhaps justify a "somewhat perverse" interpretation allowing ambiguity if it had been evidence supporting his idea. But that simply isn't possible when we have accumulated evidence with which to support..., because those words imply done for a specific purpose. Which can't possibly allow the interpreation his = Wallace's here, because we've just been told they were working independently. There are "slip-ups" (which we're all prone to), and there's "out-and-out ignorance". Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 18:48
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    @FumbleFingers a similar enough structure could be ambiguous in the way suggested. I'd forgive someone writing the question, I wouldn't their not catching it upon review, though.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 18:50

In this sentence, "his" is unclear as to whether it is referring to Darwin or Russell Wallace. We know both Wallace and Darwin proposed similar theories, and we know Darwin had accumulated extensive supporting evidence, but we don't know exactly whose theory the evidence supports (it could be Darwin or it could be Russell Wallace). The sentence should be rephrased or a new word should be chosen to clarify.

  • 4
    While I agree that this is undoubtedly the reasoning you are supposed to come up with, I also have to agree with @JonHanna that it's bunk; His clearly means Darwin's there.
    – Hellion
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:25
  • @Hellion I also agree with JonHanna, personally.
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:34
  • This is the correct answer. When you have to start analyzing the meaning of a sentence to validate the grammar, you’ve gone too far, especially when the correction is so trivial.
    – danorton
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 5:26

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