I read the following sentence and I thought the pronoun "she" could refer to either the subject or the object of the sentence.

Sally had been the first one to greet Paulina when she appeared in the doorway.

Sally is the subject, since she is doing the action, and Paulina is the object, since the action is being done to her. It's easy enough to assume that "she" means Sally. Is there a resolution or way to improve this sentence to completely remove any possible misunderstandings?

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    This is one of the ways in which English is ambiguous.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 10, 2016 at 10:25
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    The usual rule, absent semantic "clashes" that would dictate otherwise, is that the ambiguous pronoun associates with the closest "candidate" noun preceding it. So "she" would associate with "Paulina".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 10, 2016 at 13:09
  • Very closely related: Ambiguous pronouns. Jul 10, 2016 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


There are grammatical restrictions on the use of pronouns when they occur within the same sentence as co-referential noun phrases. A pronoun can co-refer with another normal noun phrase if either:

  • it occurs after the other noun phrase


  • it occurs lower down in the syntactic tree than the other noun phrase.

This last point means that a pronoun in a subordinate clause can co-refer with a noun phrase in a main clause regardless of whether the subordinate clause occurs before or after the main clause.

However, the rules above do not allow a pronoun to co-refer with another noun phrase when the pronoun comes first and the pronoun is in the main clause but the normal noun phrase is in a subordinate clause:

  • She made dinner when Brenda got home.

In the sentence above she cannot refer to the same person as Brenda. We can compare that sentence with the following:

  • When she got home Brenda made dinner.
  • When Brenda got home she made dinner.
  • Brenda made dinner when she got home.

In the examples above she and Brenda can refer to the same person. In the first example, this is because she occurs in the subordinate clause and Brenda occurs in the main clause. In the second example, it is because she occurs after Brenda. In the third example it is for both of those reasons.

The Original Poster's example

Sally had been the first one to greet Paulina when she appeared in the doorway.

The sentence above is clearly ambiguous because she can refer back to either noun phrase in the earlier main clause. We can use the rules of grammar so that we still have one she, one Sally and one Paulina, but without any ambiguity. To do this we need to move the subordinate clause to the front of the sentence and put the proper name in the subordinate clause and the pronoun in the higher main clause:

  1. When Sally had appeared in the doorway, she had been the first one to greet Paulina.

  2. When Paulina had appeared in the doorway, Sally had been the first one to greet her.

Notice that in example (2) we are also guided by the rules about reflexive pronouns. Apart from the common sense idea that Sally wouldn't be greeting herself, Sally and her cannot be co-referential because they occur in the same clause. If Sally was co-referential with the pronoun, the pronoun would have needed to be reflexive:

  • When Paulina had appeared in the doorway, Sally had been the first one to greet herself.

Pronouns are quite interesting, aren't they!

  • 1
    Actually, the OP's sentence is not really ambiguous, if you use context and a little logic. If more than one person is available to greet Paulina, it must be Paulina who appeared in the doorway. If Sally appeared on the doorway, then as the people who are already in the house presumably have no need to greet each other, Sally would be the only possible greeter of Paulina. Jul 10, 2016 at 11:54
  • @PeterShor I think I mainly agree with you, but you're making lots of assumptions about the context which don't necessarily hold (for example whether it's a house or not. Whether there were other people who arrived later and so forth. Jul 10, 2016 at 13:30
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    Wow, what an insightful answer! Pronouns can be very interesting. Thanks for clearing this up for me!
    – Symantra
    Jul 10, 2016 at 14:59
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    @PeterShor But if Pauline had arrived five minutes before Sally and nobody else in the room had greeted her in those five minutes, until Sally greeted her as soon as she (Sally) arrived, then Sally would be the first to greet Pauline when Sally appeared in the doorway. Jul 10, 2016 at 21:24
  • [Deleted the previous comment which could have been confusing] First of all, I don't think it is appropriate to use "past perfect" for both main and subordinate clauses. Secondly, I don't think the OP's example sentence is appropriate because it used the past perfect tense in the main clause. Greeting should occur later than appearing. Moving the subordinate clause to the front doesn't prove anything. It all depends on who appeared in the doorway and there is no way to know without any context or applying the rule Hot Licks mentioned in the comment. .
    – user140086
    Jul 12, 2016 at 13:16

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