In the following sentence:

Dogs hate cats as they are naughty.

does the pronoun "they" refer to dogs or cats? In other words, who is naughty here?

  • 3
    Both 'Dogs like lakes as they love swimming' and 'I hate cats as they are naughty' are grammatical. So the pronoun can refer to either the subject or the object of the independent clause. Yes, your example is ambiguous. it needs rephrasing to clarify, eg 'Dogs hate cats as they (cats) are naughty. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 7 '16 at 12:13
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you for your explanation. I heard that in English the pronoun is always related to the last noun, but had doubts about it. – MSX Jan 7 '16 at 13:11
  • @AndrewLeach Thanks for your reference. As you can imagine, it is not so easy to find related questions for langauge topics, especially for non-English speakers. Furthermore, "What does ''them'' refer to here?" has almost no similarity to "Is there a rule to determine to which word is a pronoun related?", which to my opinion is more descriptive and will hopefully help others avoid duplicates in the future. Anyway, thanks again for pointing out the possible duplicate. Attentive users like you help make this site the best place to search for help. – MSX Jan 7 '16 at 13:16
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    It is not at all uncommon for pronoun references to be technically ambiguous. Careful writing can avoid this, but in many cases the referent can be discerned upon brief consideration (or even "unconsciously" determined, due to writing patterns, etc), and sometimes it's better (in non-technical writing) to "live with" the ambiguity in the name of simpler, less awkward text. That said, your example sentence is fairly ambiguous, and the only "rule" that can be applied is the rather weak one that the pronoun should resolve to the "closest" noun of appropriate nature. – Hot Licks Jan 7 '16 at 14:01
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    More closely related question: How are pronouns resolved? – Alan Munn Jan 7 '16 at 22:21

Syntax determines some places in which a particular noun phrase can not be the antecedent of a pronoun, but other than those absolute prohibitions, the choice of antecedent is determined by discourse properties, although there are definite preferences depending on the sentences involved and the context. (I'm using 'antecedent' here loosely to mean "noun phrase upon which the pronoun depends" rather than literally "noun phrase which precedes the pronoun".)

Here are some examples:

  1. John told Bill that he would win the race.
  2. John told him that he would win the race.
  3. John told him that Bill would win the race.
  4. He told Bill that John would win the race.
  5. Before he died, John gave Bill a present.
  6. John's brother told him that he would win the race.
  7. John hates Bill because he is mean.

Explanation of the examples:

  1. In (1) he can have John, Bill or someone else as the antecedent.
  2. In (2) him cannot have John as an antecedent. He can have John as an antecedent as long as him is not the antecedent of he.
  3. In (3) him cannot have John or Bill as an antecedent.
  4. In (4) he cannot have John or Bill as an antecedent.
  5. In (5) he can have either John or Bill or someone else as an antecedent.
  6. In (6) him can have John or someone else as the antecedent but not John's brother. he can have either John or John's brother or someone else as the antecedent.
  7. In (7), he can have either John or Bill as the antecedent. This case is identical structurally to your example which is also ambiguous. (Personally I find as very odd to use in my idiolect, so I have replaced it with because, but the point is the same.)

All of the impossible cases here cannot be improved with discourse or context because there are syntactic principles which disallow the antecedent relation. The other cases will be heavily dependent on context/discourse.

For example, (1) is fairly neutral with no context, but if we know that John is Bill's coach then the choice of Bill becomes more prominent. Conversely if we know that both John and Bill are competing in the same race, we will likely prefer John as the antecedent.

In (5) our preference without other context is for John to be the antecedent, but context can again push us to Bill, for example if the next sentence is "The present was found unopened in his desk after the funeral."

In (7) only context will decide. There is no rule to decide as far as I can tell.

  • Re #2, I was always taught that once you had established a reference for a "he/him" pronoun you should not change that reference for later uses of "he/him". And likewise for "she/her" and "it". – Hot Licks Jan 7 '16 at 23:30
  • @HotLicks I'm not sure quite what you mean. You can certainly have more than one pronoun in a discourse with different antecedents. E.g. John hit Bill, and then he hit him. Or John told Bill that he would tell his sister to talk to him, where the most natural interpretation is that 'he' and 'his' are related to John and 'him' is related to Bill. But context could push all of these preferences around. – Alan Munn Jan 7 '16 at 23:37
  • I would never write the first one. The second one you can sort of figure out, but you'd want contextual clues. – Hot Licks Jan 7 '16 at 23:42
  • @HotLicks The first one is really natural in spoken language, however, with stress on each of the pronouns. If you don't stress the pronouns, the sentence is strange, unless you add again. – Alan Munn Jan 7 '16 at 23:45
  • As Greg Lee mentions, there are all sorts of things one can do to disambiguate using pitch and stress, but there's no good way to add those to ordinary written dialog. – Hot Licks Jan 7 '16 at 23:48

Your sentence is ambiguous. The antecedent of a pronoun depends on nuance of prior knowledge. This is a problem for shallow AI. A person can usually figure who is who in: 'Sally spanked Sue because she was naughty.' and 'Sally spanked Sue because she was angry.'


William Cantrall discovered that sometimes you can disambiguate such examples by making the pitch contours of antecedent and pronoun agree. In the following, I use strings of single digits for pitch contours: 1 for highest pitch, 2 for next highest, and so on.

Dogs[2] hate cats[13] as they[13] are naughty[14]. (they=cats)

Dogs[2] hate cats[13] as they[2] are naughty[14]. (they=dogs)

Cantrall ("Pitch, Stress, and Grammatical Relations", p. 12, CLS 5) has better examples, but see if you agree with the above.

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