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According to the following explanation of using ‘one’ in Oxford Practice Grammar:

We use ‘one’ to talk about an object in general (6) and ‘it’ for a specific example of an object (7):

(6) Do you have a French dictionary? I am looking for one (= not a specific French dictionary) (7) Do you have the French dictionary? I am looking for it (= a specific French dictionary)

Now, I have a question : The following context is extracted from another book:

Learning a language as a child seems to involve no effort, but learning it as an adult requires a lot of time and effort.

In the above sentence a language is used in general, but why does the writer use it instead of one?

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  • 4
    "It" is a back reference to "a language" (i.e. the same language"). "One" would imply any language, not necessarily the same as the one previously referred to.
    – Mick
    Oct 31, 2016 at 8:12
  • The more I read that sentence ("Learning a langu..."), the more it sounds weird/wrong. The 'a' and 'it' make for a strange pairing, even if such a choice might be grammatically correct. It would only sound right to me if a specific language was mentioned in a previous sentence.
    – Jeutnarg
    Oct 31, 2016 at 20:28

1 Answer 1

15

In the sentence

Learning a language as a child seems to involve no effort, but learning it as an adult requires a lot of time and effort.

a language has been mentioned in the gerund clause, so it may serve as an antecedent for it, which occurs later on in the sentence. There is therefore a slight implication that the two languages are the same, as in

Learning English as a child seems to involve no effort, but learning English as an adult requires a lot of time and effort.

The sentence

Learning a language as a child seems to involve no effort, but learning one as an adult requires a lot of time and effort.

uses the indefinite pronoun one, which does not refer to a specific syntactic entity in general (and in particular not to any entity already introduced in the sentence). Now the sense is that children seem to learn any language with no effort, but it's hard to learn any language as an adult. The languages need not be the same, as in

Learning a language as a child seems to involve no effort (even a difficult language like Basque), but learning one (even a comparatively simple language like Spanish) as an adult requires a lot of time and effort.

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  • If the author didn't intend that implication then using "it" would be incorrect?
    – talrnu
    Oct 31, 2016 at 18:27
  • @talrnu I wouldn't go so far as incorrect. Using it introduces some ambiguity. The first gerund clause has "a language", any language in general because it's the first use of language. The second gerund clause uses the personal pronoun it, which refers to a particular language. The only antecedent is a language in the first gerund clause, which will force the reader to adjust the meaning after the fact. That doesn't happen in the English...English example.
    – deadrat
    Oct 31, 2016 at 19:20

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