0

Like the planets, the stars are in motion, some of them at tremendous speeds, but they...

Just based on the above, how can we tell which noun the pronoun they refers to: planets or stars? Is there any rule to determine which is which?

The sentence finishes like this:

...are so far away from earth that their apparent positions in the sky do not change enough for their movement to be observed during a single human existence

I know that 'intuitively' you can 100% say that they refers to stars. But, for example, if you replace planets with X and stars with Y, how can you decide what they refers to?

  • 1
    Context is everything: "Like the planets, the stars are in motion, some of them at tremendous speeds, but they are not relativistic." – deadrat Dec 22 '15 at 6:18
  • Here is the full sentence.... but they are so far away from earth that their apparent positions in the sky do not change enough for their movement to be observed during a single human existence. – raja Dec 22 '15 at 6:35
  • I know that 'intuitively' you can 100% say that 'they' refers to stars. But, for example, if you replace planets with X and stars with Y, how can you decide what 'they' refers to ? – raja Dec 22 '15 at 6:38
3

The 'rule' is that you go left until you find the first antecedent that works. In your example that would be stars.

This is not particularly intuitive. The type of pronoun limits its antecedents. A personal pronoun, for example, must refer to a person, so in a sentence like "Mary went to the shop she had noticed the day before", 'she' cannot refer to the shop so you keep keep going left until you find a person - Mary. Compare with "Mary went to the shop, but it had closed" where the third-person pronoun 'it' can refer to the first noun you meet - shop, and would be inappropriate for 'Mary'.

It does not always hinge on the type of pronoun. Sometimes you have to draw on encyclopaedic knowledge, as in the Winograd Schema Challenge which uses two sentences such as "The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence" and "The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence", where knowing how councilmen and protesters behave is needed to decide on which one is the antecedent for 'they'.

  • 3
    The last paragraph is the point. The answer to the question is "No, there is not a rule". There are heuristics, some syntactic, some grammatical, and some depending on real-world knowledge. And sometimes it remains stubbornly ambiguous. – Colin Fine Dec 22 '15 at 12:35
1

They here refers to stars.
Keep in mind that planets is not the subject of the sentence before "but" here.
the stars are in motion, some of them at tremendous speeds<- This sentence fixes our focus on stars,not stars and planets.

0

Referring the full sentence as

Like the planets, the stars are in motion, some of them at tremendous speeds, but they are not relativistic.

I would like to say that here the pronoun they has been used to refer both the stars and the planet bcz here the writer is comparing stars and planets and not only the stars we can see the in beginning of sentence.And there is no such predefined rule to decide that but we need to understand it by context of the sentence.

  • 1
    You are referring to my conjectured complete sentence, which I wrote (and you referenced) before sumelic edited the OP to give us the original complete sentence. You are right that we must understand the antecedent by context, and the context here is that they is modified by relativistic. Only speeds in this sentence can be relativistic, so the antecedent for they must be speeds. In the proper sentence, planets do change their apparent position in the sky as seen from earth, so the antecedent for they must be stars. – deadrat Dec 22 '15 at 7:47
  • I am aware of that sir and that's the only reason I've mentioned the referred sentence.The reference of pronoun they depends on the whole sentence only.It may vary with the sentence all depends on context. – user152418 Dec 22 '15 at 8:18
  • I'm sorry if I've merely told you something you already know. You wrote "I would like to say that here the pronoun they has been used to refer [to] both the stars and planets...." But "stars and planets" is not a possible antecedent for they in this sentence because whatever "they" is, they must be "relativistic," and as I wrote the sentence the only candidate is "speeds." – deadrat Dec 22 '15 at 8:42
  • 1
    Yes sir, you are right, I agree.But still if we take another example there might be change of antecedent. – user152418 Dec 22 '15 at 8:57
  • 1
    Absolutely. To see that, we just have to check the actual complete sentence rather than the one I made up. As I'm fond of saying, the grammar by itself can only take you so far. – deadrat Dec 22 '15 at 9:41
0

The rule of thumb for writers is that, if you have to ask that question, you should rewrite the sentence to resolve the ambiguity, such as by changing "they" to "the stars." That's the rule even if the rewritten sentence seems less elegant.

Here, however, they refers to stars because they refers to the pronoun them in the preceding parenthetical expression, and them clearly refers to stars. By contrast, the phrase "Like the planets" is an adverbial phrase which modifies "the stars are in motion" and which is not connected grammatically to the rest of the sentence, except through the phrase "the stars are in motion."

  • Thank you very much.'Them-They' correlation is very apt and cleared my confusion. – raja Dec 23 '15 at 3:53

This site is temporarily in read only mode and not accepting new answers.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .