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I have two questions about the following two sentences:

(1) "One explanation should be accepted over another if it can explain the evidence better."

(2) "One explanation should be accepted over another if it can explain the evidence better than the other."

Question 1: Is "it" an ambiguous pronoun in either sentence?

Question 2: Does replacing "it" with "former" in sentence 1 make that sentence better?

Thanks for your opinions.

  • if "that explanation". – Lambie Jun 21 '18 at 19:07
  • Q1. No. Q2. No. – Kris Jun 22 '18 at 7:28
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In both sentences, it refers to one explanation. I wouldn't say it's ambiguous.

One explanation should be accepted over another if (the) former can explain the evidence better.

The sentence now makes little sense. Not only is it awkward and almost ungrammatical, but what if it's the latter explanation that better explains the evidence? (A somewhat literal interpretation of the sentence would have us never accept "one explanation over another" if the latter explanation is better . . .)

The point of deliberately not saying former or latter is because either one could be better than the other. (Nobody has forced somebody to always write the better explanation before the worse explanation.) You need to pick which of the two is better in any given comparison.

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English routinely uses semantics to resolve pronouns. Consider the following sentence:

Jim does not like Bob because he hit him in the mouth.

A native speaker would almost certainly resolve "he" as Bob and "him" as Jim. It just makes sense that way. Now consider

I think that Jim does not like Bob because he hit him in the mouth.

Now the pronouns are completely ambiguous. Does the sentence mean

Because Jim hit Bob in the mouth, I think that Jim does not like Bob.

(i.e., witnessing the fight led me to that conclusion) or

I think that Jim does not like Bob because Bob hit Jim in the mouth.

(i.e., I have concluded that the fight led to Jim's dislike of Bob.)

In your sentences, the semantics resolve "it" quite plainly; it refers to the first explanation. So plainly in fact that substituting "the former" sounds unnecessarily didactic.

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