Here is the quotation:

In support of his thesis, Dr Wrangham, who is an anthropologist, has ransacked other fields and come up with an impressive array of material. Cooking increases the share of food digested in the stomach and small intestine, where it can be absorbed, from 50% to 95% according to work done on people fitted for medical reasons with collection bags at the ends of their small intestines. Previous studies had suggested raw food was digested equally well as cooked food because they looked at faeces as being the end product. These, however, have been exposed to the digestive mercies of bacteria in the large intestine, and any residual goodies have been removed from them that way.

The Economist, 19 February 2009

My question is how to understand the red part? Which one does "these" refer to? "studies", "faeces", or"intestines"? If it means "studies", does this sentence means "the results of the experiment are rendered inaccurately because of the digestive effect of the bacteria"?

  • 5
    “These studies have been through bacteria in the large intestine”—does that really sound like something that makes sense to you? Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 11:14
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet: I always wondered who extracted the worthwhile parts of scientific studies before I got to them. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 12:38
  • 1
    They clearly refers to faeces (was it spelled fæces in the original, btw? The Economist gets cute sometimes), which is a plural noun and therefore takes they. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 16:18

1 Answer 1


"These" refers to "faeces". After exiting the small intestine, the digested food enters the large intestine, where it is now called faeces. The term remains throughout the faeces' transit through the large intestine, during which it (the faeces) is acted on by digestive enzymes secreted by bacteria normally inhabiting the large intestine ("digestive mercies of bacteria" is just a fancy way of saying this). Upon reaching the rectum, the "processed" faeces is now ready for expulsion through the anal orifice.

  • Thanks for your answer. So the word "faeces" can be treated either as singular or as plural? When to use its singular form? When to use its plural form?
    – Zordon
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 13:49
  • @Zordon Faeces is an uncountable noun. Uncountable nouns generally take a singular verb. E.g. "If your faeces is blood-stained, you should see a doctor immediately." (cont'd)
    – Deepak
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 15:06
  • @Zordon (cont'd) It is not entirely clear why these (a plural form) is being used by the author here. My best guess is that they are talking about a collection of faeces from different people. If I'm talking about faeces samples from ten different people, I would be inclined to use a plural form, e.g. "These faeces are to be analysed as soon as possible." ("These faecal samples..." reads better, though). But frankly, I think "these" doesn't quite fit in the context of your passage; it may be an error. I would have phrased it: "This, however, has been exposed... removed from it...".
    – Deepak
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 15:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.