There, Rowboat has a propeller. Now I can use it.

In the above quotation, I feel that "it" refers to the propeller, but why? Am I wrong?

If Rowboat were a person, this'd be easy, but it's not; it's some sort of a vessel.

I don't actually have context for this, I'm afraid.

  • 1
    How do you not have any context for this? Where did you get it? Why are you asking about it? Did you make it up, and if so can you provide the original example -- and its context -- it was modeled after? Also bear in mind that perfectly unambiguous language is a myth. Impossible. – Dan Bron Jul 31 '16 at 17:53
  • It may be the translation of a Russian PC game, as described at habrahabr.ru/company/allcorrect/blog/214899 . Russian does not have a definite article in the English sense which raises an issue, but here Rowboat seems to be a robot and so Rowboat may be its name. The full quote on that page seems to be "There, Rowboat has a propeller. Now I can use it. I don't have the map and Rowboat can't row without a proper drive. He-he, Rowboat will now serve as a row boat." – Henry Jul 31 '16 at 17:58
  • @Henry So there is context for it, after all :) Thanks for doing the legwork! – Dan Bron Jul 31 '16 at 18:07
  • @DanBron Yep, it's from a game. I didn't know it actually existed, I was just sent fragments of the text from it as a test assignment for a job. – T. Spikes Jul 31 '16 at 18:20

The antecedent of it is ambiguous if one suspends the usual mind-reading abilities of language users.

When someone talks, you immediately calculate to yourself: Why are they talking? What are they trying to accomplish by talking? Why did they phrase the sentence the way they did? You know how to read minds, so you answer these questions to yourself automatically. (See Tomasello's Constructing a Language)

In this case, saying "Now I can use it" suggests that there was something the speaker was previously unable to use, but now can. Since they discovered the propeller for the first time, then it is not the thing that they previously thought they were unable to use. So it must be the boat (which is itself a useful thing).

  • In other words, not syntax or semantics, but pragmatics. I wouldn't normally upvote answers to questions I think are ill-posed one way or another, but +1 for directing my attention to Tomasello. I'm looking forward to it. – Dan Bron Jul 31 '16 at 18:11

If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it.

This old joke (sourced here) reminds us of an inherent ambiguity of sentences such as these. They are to be avoided, as explained in detail in relevant passages of Gowers' The Complete Plain Words. (Also presumably the original source of the joke).

However, it is marginally more likely that "it" refers anaphorically to the closest antecedent, as explained here. So without context, your feeling would be only natural.

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