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I have often struggled with sentences that contain two characters of the same gender. For example, if there are two females, Alice and Carol, then the following sentence can be confusing.

Alice reminded Carol about how she helped her last week.

Clearly, Alice is telling Carol something, but who helped whom?

When the genders differ, the ambiguity is resolved.

Alice reminded Bob about how he helped her last week.
Alice reminded Bob about how she helped him last week.

Is there a rule that addresses this or a rule of thumb for handling it?

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As a reader, my first choice would usually be to take whoever is subject of the main clause (Alice) to remain the subject in the following clause; but I could never be sure, and it might be ambiguous in many cases. There is no real solution. The only way out is by recasting the sentence such that the right reference will become clear from context. You will usually need to make it longer by adding more information:

Alice reminded Carol about how she helped with Carol's paperwork last week.

I agree that this isn't the prettiest of sentences, as using the same name twice in a sentence is usually not done, but it might be acceptable. If the reader knows that the paperwork must be Carol's, references will be acceptably clear without Carol's:

Carol seemed fairly happy now that she didn't have to worry about the documents any more, but she failed to mention payment. Alice reminded her about how she had helped her last week with the paperwork and requested a share of the proceeds.

A sentence rarely comes without context: usually you have something to work with, and often things will naturally fall into place even with several persons of the same gender.

Note that the problem is also very real with two or more inanimate objects; it, that, etc. can often lead to similar ambiguity:

The difference between Rome and Carthage was great; its economy also depended very much on trade, and yet its merchant class was far less powerful than one would have expected.

If I changed the first sentence so that Rome became the subject, I believe its would logically point toward Rome first:

Rome was very different from Carthage; its economy also depended very much on trade, and yet its merchant class was far less powerful than one would have expected.

  • 3
    Such elaborate examples. And a history lesson, too. :) – Kelly Hess Mar 22 '11 at 2:20
  • yeah.. can you confirm the history part or it's just a made-up example? – Louis Rhys Mar 22 '11 at 10:09
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    @LouisRhys: Well, most coastal empires will depend on trade to a significant degree. But I believe on the onset of the Punic wars Carthage was a true trade empire, whose merchant class was politically dominant, whereas merchants were barred from the highest stratum of Roman society, the senatorial order: a Roman gentleman was supposed live off his land and military successes, not engage in plebeian activities such as trade. - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_trade - books.google.com/…" – Cerberus Mar 22 '11 at 12:24
  • The Roman example (the first one) is not great: the way it's phrased, it's actually the economy and merchant class of the difference, rather than of either Rome or Carthage. And that's obviously nonsense, since differences have neither economies nor merchant classes. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 16 '17 at 0:59
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Well, you say that that is the case, but why? Exactly because that would be nonsense, I don't consider it a viable option. I think any reader will write that off immediately. What options remain are ambiguous, and therefore (though not only therefore) poorly written, but not nonsensical. I could rephrase it as "Rome and Carthage were different in many respects; ...": that would remove your objection while still demonstrating the same ambiguity. – Cerberus Jan 16 '17 at 3:16
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You can add just a little context to make it clear, for example:

Feeling indebted, Alice reminded Carol about how she helped her last week.

A clumsy example, but I think that is all you can do.

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    Sorry, I think adding a dangling modifier makes this sentence even less clear, rather than helping. :( – kojiro Mar 22 '11 at 2:40
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    It is not a dangling modifier, it is a participial clause attached to the subject, Alice. – z7sg Ѫ Mar 22 '11 at 3:00
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    @z7sg It's not clear to me that Feeling indebted is really intended to modify Alice. After all, why should Alice feel indebted to the person she recently helped? Even if I'm off-base in my assertion that the participle's target is ambiguous, I still don't see how this clause clarifies the pronouns. – kojiro Mar 22 '11 at 3:26
  • @kojiro Alice feels indebted. Sometimes people feel indebted towards a person who has helped them, perhaps they feel obliged to return the favour. Not something you have experienced? To me this is just obvious on an emotional level, it wasn't supposed to be a logic puzzle. It's just that the other way round no longer makes sense. – z7sg Ѫ Mar 22 '11 at 5:05
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    My intended meaning was that Carol helped Alice. The point is that semantics trumps word order. Is this incorrect? At least, it doesn't seem to have worked for me. Also, are you implying that word order in the subordinate clause must match the main clause, or that the subject must agree in both? Because it could be the case that the subject of the main clause is the object of the subordinate one, as in Alice reminded Bob about how he helped her last week. – z7sg Ѫ Mar 22 '11 at 13:14
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Alice reminded Carol: "I did help you last week, remember?" Alice reminded Carol: "You did help me last week, remember?"

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    That could work for a novel or something, but it’s too prosaic for uses requiring more flat, narrative text. – Synetech May 18 '11 at 23:27
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Alice reminded Carol about how she helped her last week.

To resolve the ambiguity introduced by shared gender:

  • Alice helped Carol last week, and reminded her about it.
  • Carol helped Alice last week, and reminded her about it.
  • Alice helped Carol last week, and was reminded by her about it.
  • Carol helped Alice last week, and was reminded by her about it.
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It's simple. Just find out who is the subject of the sentence. In your example sentence, undoubtedly, Alice is the subject. In English grammar, only a subject can do an action. So, the sentence can be comprehended as:

Alice reminded Carol about how she (Alice) helped her (Carol) last week.

  • 1
    A pronoun is most definitely not required to be the same part of speech as its referrent. – Marthaª Mar 23 '11 at 3:35
  • Finding out who the subject of the clause is is the entire point of the question. The fact that Alice is the subject of a different clause is completely irrelevant. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 16 '17 at 1:02

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