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I want to know which of the following would be the correct way to phrase my sentence, pasted below. I've come across this problem several times in my writing and want to settle this for good so that I don't always second guess myself:

"When he learned of the sins he had committed, Oedipus blinded himself as punishment"

or

"When Oedipus learned of the sins he had committed, he blinded himself as punishment"

Is one of these more grammatically correct than the other, or are they essentially the same? Is there a general rule for phrasing such sentences?

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The answer to your first question is that neither sentence is 'more grammatically correct' than the other. Nor is there any difference in meaning.

The difference between the sentences is in the frequency of the respective constructions. The first sentence contains forward reference from the pronoun he to its antecedent Oedipus. The term for this forward reference is cataphora (also known as anticpatory anaphora).

Conversely, the second sentence contains backward reference from the pronoun to its antecedent. This is anaphora, also known as retrospective anaphora. Anaphoric reference is much more common than cataphoric reference.

Quirk et al. in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (p351) state:

Cataphoric reference occurs much less frequently, and under limited conditions.

As to the second question about general rules for phrasing such sentences (e.g. the limited conditions), the CGEL notes:

It (cataphoric reference) generally occurs only where the pronoun is at a lower level of structure than its antecedent.

Dependent or subordinate clauses are an example of what the CGEL means by 'lower level of structure'. This is the case in the present example, where the dependent clause contains the referent pronoun he, and is followed by the main clause with its antecedent Oedipus. It is not permissible, therefore, to use a cataphoric reference if the two clauses are reversed:

?He blinded himself as punishment, when Oedipus learned of the sins he had committed.

As the CGEL points out, he and Oedipus "must be understood to refer to two different people."

The difference between the two constructions, therefore, is a stylistic one. The CGEL states:

On the whole, cataphoric reference ... is associated with formal written English.

The Wikipedia article on Cataphora claims:

Cataphora across sentences is often used for rhetorical effect. It can build suspense and provide a description.

There is a good article on Cataphora at About.com with many examples from literature and the media.

  • Because it keeps me reading I enjoy cataphora (?! - thanks for the new word :-) ). – Dan Jan 23 '16 at 23:24
  • Oh wow, can't believe I never selected an answer to this question. Sorry about that! Selected now :o – AleksandrH Oct 14 '16 at 11:49
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Which sentence is correct depends on the previous sentence. Let me illustrate:

Oedipus looked up to Fred. Fred was very disappointed. When he learned of the sins he had committed, Oedipus blinded himself as punishment.

Oedipus looked up to Fred. Fred was very disappointed. When Oedipus learned of the sins he had committed, he blinded himself as punishment.

In the former case Fred learns of the sins one of them committed, Oedipus is blinded.

In the latter case Oedipus learned of the sins one of them committed, Oedipus is blinded.

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    I'm dubious. I think the attractions are about equal for deciding in the first case whether he refers to antecedent Fred or postcedent Oedipus. The first sentence is often phrased, "When he, Fred, learned...." In the second case, I think the intrasentence attraction of he to antecedent Oedipus is stronger than a cross-sentence attraction to antecedent Fred. The second sentence might be phrased, "When Oedipus learned of the sins he himself had committed, ...." YMMV. – deadrat Jan 23 '16 at 18:10

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