Some examples:

  1. The Wilsons are angry at the Smiths for the way they parked their car.
  2. The Wilsons haven't hated this Smiths this much since they moved.
  3. The South hasn't hated the North this much since they lost the Civil War.
  4. The red team likes the blue team because they feed their pets.
  5. The red team likes the blue team because they found out the blue team gives to their charity.

In the first sentence, it's clear to me that "they" and "their" refer to the Smiths. Is that based on a grammar rule, or just meaning? It would be nonsensical to be mad at someone for the way you park your own car, so the meaning does give it away.

The second sentence seems less clear for some reason. Did the Smiths move or the Wilsons move?

Is the third sentence wrong usage? If you know that the South lost the Civil War, the meaning is clear. But should grammar rely on historical knowledge?

The fourth sentence seems clear. The blue team feeds the blue team's pets? Is that right?

Why does that work differently in the fifth sentence? I guess the "they found out the blue team" eliminates "they" meaning the blue team so it must mean the red team? What about "their" does it refer to the blue team's charity or the red team's charity?

  • 4
    There are no rules for such interpretations. The sentences are semantically ambiguous and could have several meanings, following the usual rules for coreference. What happens, instead of having inflexible grammatical rules, is that everybody -- speaker and addressee -- makes assumptions (sometimes incorrectly) about what the other(s) know, believe, and expect about the situation and the reasons for the sentence being uttered in the first place. Plus, in person, one has the ability to point to or glance toward any participants that may be present. It's called "pragmatics". – John Lawler Mar 26 '19 at 20:44
  • 1
    You say that the meaning of the third sentence is clear. It wasn't clear to me, because (not being American) I didn't know what civil war was being referred to, nor who won or lost it. So, obviously no: the grammar should not rely on historical knowledge! – TrevorD Mar 26 '19 at 20:59
  • 1
    Context will override any rigid rules about pronouns referencing the last identified party. – Davo Mar 26 '19 at 20:59
  • @Davo Context may override rules where the meaning is obvious to the reader, bujt I would say that items 2 & 3 are ambiguous, whereas the rest are fairly obvious. – TrevorD Mar 26 '19 at 21:02
  • 1
    The "usual rules" are designed for prototype situations, where there is one noun phrase that is referentially identical to another NP in the same sentence (or in the same discourse). The second NP becomes a pronoun in speech, and is to be interpreted as such by the addressee. There are lots of variations on this. But if there are several possible antecedents for pronouns, there is no rule for which one the addressee should choose. The speaker would normally avoid such sentences, unless they could make clear the referent by stressing it or glancing or pointing at it. – John Lawler Mar 26 '19 at 22:44

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