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Up front apologies for the vague title, happy for editing suggestions on that as I'm not sure how else to describe it. Apologies again.

I have come across a few situations where in a simple sentence I'd like to say that one character's body part is doing something in relation to another character's body part, all this without confusing which part belongs to who and which is making contact with who. Nothing weird here, please see example below for clarity:

  1. John took Jack's hand and placed it on his shoulder.
  2. John took Jack's hand and placed it on his own shoulder. (similar, but no less vague I'd say)

Now to me, this could read as either John placing Jack's hand on Jack's shoulder or on his own (John's) shoulder could it not? Similarly in the second example, and my concern is this ambiguity. For example; how would the above look if John is placing the hand on his own (John's) shoulder now? If John is now instead placing the hand on Jack's shoulder that is straight forward. I could say the following, which looks unnecessarily verbose (every word counts) but it could be just me:

  1. John took Jack's hand and placed it on John's own shoulder.

Is this the most concise solution or is there a better way I can punctuate or reword the above? Ideally I'd prefer not to split it into multiple sentences, but if (together) they aren't any more verbose than perhaps that could still work. Thank you and looking forward to suggestions.

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    (1') John took Jack's hand and placed it on his (John's) shoulder disguises awkwardness of style with professionalism of construction. Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 11:38
  • Not sure what you mean?
    – FrontEnd
    Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 11:47
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    John took Jack's hand and placed it on his (John's) shoulder, while not being ideal, looks less awkward than John took Jack's hand and placed it on John's shoulder. and John took Jack's hand and placed it on John's own shoulder. All are 100% grammatical. But then so is good old 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously'. Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 12:14

1 Answer 1

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I think you have already nailed it in the question itself, only that you are underestimating the function served by the emphasizing word own there— It disambiguates the two sentences and leaves no doubt as to who is placing whose hand on whose shoulder.

Often, standalone sentences like yours might leave doubt as to the implied meaning, but contextualizing them should remove any sliver of doubt. Thus if this scene was part of, say some storyline, it should be readily apparent to the reader as to who is the sympathizer and who is the one sympathized.

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    So there's no getting around using 'John' twice in (3) above? It just sounds a bit redundant to me, doesn't flow as well as using 'his', but of course 'his' is too ambiguous.
    – FrontEnd
    Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 11:31
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    (4) 'John took Jack's hand off Jill's shoulder and placed it on his own shoulder' is ambiguous despite the inclusion of the determiner. And context might allow this situation with sentence (2). There is no non-laborious way of disambiguating Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 11:35
  • John took his hand off Jill's shoulder and placed it on his own shoulder infact isn't really ambiguous. The gender gives it away in a jiffy. But I agree with you that even the inclusion of a determiner may not be enough to always disambiguate such sentences, @Edwin Ashworth.
    – user405662
    Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 11:53

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