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The following two sentences, which is commonly used and grammatically correct?

  1. When Lisa unwrapped the package, she found the cellphone inside it was broken.
  2. When she unwrapped the package, Lisa found the cellphone inside it was broken.

I know the noun Lisa is the antecedent of the pronoun she. Are there any specific rules about the subject of a subordinate clause? How about if we put the subordinate clause after the main clause?

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    Both scenarios are common and grammatical. You can say it either way. It makes no difference. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other. What you could do that many native speakers would do is omit "it" to simply say, "...the cellphone inside was broken." Apr 30, 2021 at 13:45
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    There are very strict rules about when you can use pronouns and proper/common nouns in each clause. In the following sentence “she” and “Lisa” cannot refer to the same person: “She found the cellphone inside the package was broken when Lisa opened it”. Apr 30, 2021 at 14:03
  • Version #2 helps you vary your sentences. My preference is neither to get stuck with one structure nor to force variety. Apr 30, 2021 at 14:03
  • << 3. When she unwrapped the package, she found the cellphone inside it was broken. >> is also fine if Lisa has just been mentioned and is the obvious referent. Apr 30, 2021 at 14:19

2 Answers 2

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The basic rule for pronoun coreference was explicated by Ron Langacker in his classic 1969 paper "Pronominalization and the Chain of Command"¹.

It's stated succinctly in terms of the syntactic structural relationships precede and command. One of these terms is obvious, but the second isn't.

  1. Precede means 'precede in the utterance'; it refers to time.
    So, in The boy lost his hat, the noun phrase the boy precedes the possessive pronoun his.
    That's the norm; ordinarily, the antecedent noun phrase comes before any pronoun that refers to it.
    That's what antecedent means in Latin, in fact -- 'coming before'.
    It's what we expect. But it's not what always happens.

  2. Command is not a temporal relation, however.
    Where precedence is linear, command is vertical. It refers to clause structure. An item in the main clause commands everything in clauses subordinate to it.
    An item in a subordinate clause does not command anything in a clause above it. And items in the same clause command each other.

The rule is very simple to state, since it's negative, like most rules:

  • A pronoun may not both precede and command its antecedent.

So, in the examples given (leaving out irrelevant details)

  • When Lisa unwrapped the package, she found the cellphone inside.
  • When she unwrapped the package, Lisa found the cellphone inside.

the first one has the antecedent preceding its pronoun, as we expect. In the second, however, the pronoun precedes its antecedent grammatically, because it's not commanding it. Let's look at the other possibilities. Note that the subordinate clause about unwrapping can appear either before or after the main clause; adverbial clauses are like that:

  • Lisa found the cellphone inside when she unwrapped the package.
  • *She found the cellphone inside when Lisa unwrapped the package.

Only one of these is grammatical. That's the first one, with the antecedent preceding and commanding the pronoun, so that follows the rule.

The ungrammatical sentence is the one in which the antecedent Lisa occurs in a subordinate clause, after the main clause, and the pronoun she occurs in the main clause, before the subordinate clause containing Lisa. In other words, the pronoun she precedes its antecedent Lisa, and it commands Lisa (since Lisa occurs in a subordinate clause and she occurs in the main clause) and that violates the rule.

Note that this is not a rule "about the subject of a subordinate clause". This is a rule about pronoun coreference, which happens to apply to the subject of a subordinate clause, but could apply anywhere to any noun phrase. So anybody looking for this answer won't find it by searching titles.

Remember, you asked.


¹Langacker, Ron. 1969. "Pronominalization and the chain of command". In David Reibel and Sanford Schane, eds., Modern Studies in English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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If you put the subordinate after the main clause, there are two ways of doing that, either as a restrictive clause or as a non-restrictive one.

  • When Lisa unwrapped the package, she found the cellphone inside was broken. [A]

  • Lisa found the cellphone was broken when she unwrapped the package. [B]

  • Lisa found the cellphone was broken, when she unwrapped the package. [C]

From CoGEL p.1084 § 15.29,

When and whenever may indicate a sequence when the two clauses are nondurative:
     She was shocked when she heard his story. [5]
     When(ever) I cry, my eyes get puffy. [6]
     I drink coke when(ever) I feel sick. [7]
[…] When, whenever and once may combine time and condition as in [7]
[…]
When and whenever may also combine time, cause and condition as in [6]

In "[A]" the information focus is on the unwrapping and there is just a notion of time involved.

This is not so in "[B]"; notice that there is no possible inversion without an interchange of the name and pronoun of same referent. The notion of consequence is not mentioned in CoGEL, but I think that it can be added; on the basis of this assumption, time is combined with consequence (Lisa found the cellphone inside was broken as a consequence of unwrapping the package.), and the information focus is still on unwrapping the cellphone. The clause is restrictive. (As "when … package" is an optional adjunct clause, the concept of restrictive/non-restrictive clause does apply to it (CoGEL p. 1073 § 15.23)).

In "[C]" the clause is non-restrictive and the time clause, where "when" connotes only time, has the effect of formulating a comment on the main idea. The information focus is now on discovering that the cellphone was broken.

It follows that the inversion is possible, but what is basically the same information is presented from a different point of view.

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