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I am not trying to be funny (other than the fact that the joke is, in and of itself, funny). I'm asking someone to parse this for me. Seems to me it should be something like, "You can't put a flower in an ahole and say it's in a vase." Or, "You can't put a flower in an ahole and call the a**hole a vase." Isn't "flower" the object of the sentence and therefore what the pronoun "it" stands for?

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    Here, "it" stands for ahole. English pronouns are much more flexible that that. You need to use context to figure out what they stand for. If the sentence was "you can't put a flower in an aquarium and call it a fish", "it" would stand for "flower". – Peter Shor Dec 17 '15 at 12:56
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    @Rathony In the OP's original quote, the 'it' does not refer to the flower, it refers to the receptacle. – Marv Mills Dec 17 '15 at 13:02
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    One may also interpret "it" as the whole object: the a**hole plus the flower. Is a vase without a flower a vase? Could be a glass. – Laurent Duval Dec 17 '15 at 13:40
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    In all the times I have had a flower there I have never once failed to call it a vase. – Senex Ægypti Parvi Dec 17 '15 at 19:24
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    When you've solved this level-one puzzler, consider taking on the more-complex question of whether Yankee Doodle uses the term macaroni to refer to his hat, to a feather, to his hat with a feather in it, or to the act of sticking a feather in his hat. – Sven Yargs Dec 17 '15 at 21:01
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+50

You can't put a flower in an a***hole and say it's in a vase

and

You can't put a flower in an a***hole and call the a***hole a vase

would both also be valid paraphrasings of the same sentence, but the original works too. Although grammatically the "it" could refer to either the flower or the a***hole in

You can't put a flower in an a***hole and call it a vase,

context and semantics are enough to distinguish between the two possibilities. I can't see any reason why we would call a flower a vase because it's in an a***hole, but calling the a***hole a vase because it contains a flower would make more sense. That reasoning tells us what the "it" must refer to.

Nice saying, btw :-)

  • Thanx, rand!... – Mark Flint Dec 17 '15 at 14:09
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There's no rule that "it" refers to the object of a sentence; it can generally refer to any previous noun or noun phrase. It can even be used without an explicit antecedent (the so-called "dummy it").

(Your question reminds me a little of this one: What does this "it" refer to?)

1

This, like many pithy folk sayings, is really a piece of poetry. As such, the rhythm is at least as important as the grammar. To expect it to conform to formal structural expectations is to critically misunderstand its function and register.

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