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I give an example so you understand right away what I'm asking. Does the following sentence sound right:

Users are parts of not only the one being discussed right now, but the already-mentioned two other services of the system as well.

Or is this the only way to say it:

Users are parts of not only the service being discussed right now, but the already-mentioned two other services of the system as well.

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  • Neither of those makes much sense.
    – tchrist
    Mar 5, 2015 at 16:17
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    No. English coreference normally goes forward, not backward. By the time people get to the second clause, they have probably closed the parse on the first sentence and don't have an empty slot waiting for service to fill. If it hasn't appeared as an antecedent by then, readers are unlikely to understand it as coreferential from its occurrence in the second clause alone (to say nothing of listeners -- no native English speaker would ever spontaneously emit either of these sentences) . Mar 5, 2015 at 16:22
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    While the general rule is that the antecedent should precede the pronoun reference, it seems like the given sentence is part of a longer discussion. In that context, it may be clear that the one refers to the service that has just been described. So if you want a good answer, please show the preceding text.
    – Barmar
    Mar 5, 2015 at 16:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it lacks the GRAMMATICALLY REQUIRED context of preceding text. Mar 5, 2015 at 16:33
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    If you really want the rule, it's most simply stated thus: A pronoun cannot both precede and command its antecedent. A pronoun can precede its antecedent, if it doesn't command it (Before she became President, I used to date Marilyn); and a pronoun can command its antecedent, if it doesn't precede it (Before Marilyn became President, I used to date her). But it can't do both (*I used to date her before Marilyn became President). Mar 5, 2015 at 17:03

2 Answers 2

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Yes, "one" can precede its antecedent. Here is an example. "Before I had actually seen one, I wanted a 4K TV very badly." The antecedent of "one" is the following "a 4K TV". Generally this works when the "one" is within a clause which is subordinate to the clause containing the antecedent.

In your example, however, the antecedent of "one" must have come earlier in the conversation, since it wouldn't make any sense to construe the antecedent as the following phrase "other services of the system".

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I have trouble interpreting the simple declaration "Users are parts of [three] systems." I suspect that the author chose the "Users are parts" language mainly in order to avoid saying "Users use," but the drawback of the non-tautological wording is that it leaves readers to puzzle over what parts of the systems users are.

I think you'd be better off if you made use your primary verb and swapped out "users" in favor of another noun instead—participants, say, or clients or visitors or people or whatever makes sense in connection with the systems involved (which is not made clear in the original sentence).

Once you've made that alteration, the rest of the structure should slide into place much less awkwardly than before. For example:

Participants in the system use not only the service currently under discussion, but also the two services mentioned previously.

As various commenters (most notably John Lawler) have pointed out, putting "one" far ahead of the referent "service[s]" in the sentence does not do the sentence's coherence any favors. If you absolutely reject the idea of saying "service" and "services" in the same sentence, you could rearrange the main phrases so that the pronoun one followed services:

Participants in the system use the two services mentioned previously as well as the one currently under discussion.

But that formulation sounds less natural to me—perhaps because once you turn the sentence's attention to "the two services mentioned previously," they become the ones that are currently under discussion, which makes the subsequent assertion about "the one currently under discussion" seem misplaced.

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