There is the sentence: "Women have an ability to make men think they are in charge".

I do not get who is in charge eventually?

Women make men think that men in charge? or Women make men think that women in charge?

Who are 'they' in this particular context?

I suppose the second option is correct but still hesitate.


2 Answers 2


Within the context of a paragraph, the sentence might be clear; but standing alone, the intended interpretation of the sentence is ambiguous.

Grammatically, the reader should look to the immediate antecedent of a pronoun to identify its meaning. The pronoun "they" is preceded by "men," so absent any other context the reader should conclude that women are fostering the belief that men are in charge. That said, I would advise an author to write so clearly that readers do not need to pause and deconstruct the grammar of a sentence.

If you are the author, I would recommend revising it. Here are some alternatives, each with nuanced differences in meaning — so choose carefully:

  • Women have the ability to make a man think he is in charge.
  • A woman has the ability to make men think they are in charge.
  • Women have the ability to allow men to think they are in charge. [Still slightly ambiguous, but less so.]
  • Like all women, she had the ability to make men think they are in charge.
  • Women have learned to lead while allowing men to think they are still in charge.

Personally, I think the construction "have the ability" is clunky, indirect, and ineffective, so I would use an active expression like the final example above.

[EDIT: changed the last line to say "indirect" and "expression" rather than "passive" and "construction," as described in my comments.]

  • Right. That's why I expressed it as an opinion about style: "clunky, passive, and ineffective." That's my opinion about using the expression "have the ability" in any setting (unless the writer is explicitly addressing skill acquisition). But I'll change the last line from "construction" to "expression" if that helps. So which sentence do you prefer? Which is most helpful in resolving the OP's concern?
    – James D
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 15:56
  • Ok, I'll play along one more time, though I find this conversation petty. I'll change it to "indirect." That said, the phrase "have the ability" is in most everyday usage a lazy and wordy expression that avoids a direct and active expression of cause and effect by placing the actor (women, in this case) is the position of possessing something (an ability) without taking action. That is both conceptually and stylistically a passive position.
    – James D
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 17:02

I agree that it's ambiguous, since there are two possible antecedents for "they": "women" and "men". I don't find this surprising in any way. One would expect it to be ambiguous from the way pronominalization works, and it is. What's the question?

Well, despite the fact that there is nothing to say, I decided to post an answer, because there may be an interesting way to disambiguate it in speech. William Cantrall discovered that pitch agreement between antecedent and pronoun can sometimes determine the intended reference of a pronoun. (This was described in a paper read to the Chicago Linguistic Society in the late 60s.) I thought this might interest you.

I tried saying the example sentence with rising pitch on "women" and falling pitch on "men" and "they". This still seems to me to be ambiguous. But with falling pitch on "women" and rising pitch on "men" and "they", I think the "they" probably would refer to "men". What do you think?

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