There are 4 options:

a. Melanie wrote to her sister once a week while she was living abroad.

b. While her sister was living abroad, Melanie wrote to her once a week.

c. When traveling abroad, a letter was written once a week by Melanie to her sister.

d. Her sister received a letter once a week from Melanie while she was living abroad.

The correct answer is b, while I chose a.

So my questions are:

  1. What is the 'she' referring to in each of option?
  2. Why is option 'a' wrong?
  • Rather than only one being correct, (b) is the best option for the reasons given in @fev's answer. (c) is the worst, as it suggests that the letter was travelling! Jan 30 at 8:54
  • In many contexts, the reader / audience would know perfectly well which of the two sisters had lived abroad, so there couldn't be any ambiguity anyway. Looking at text fragments and context-less written utterances here on ELU artificially strengthens the case for avoiding ambiguous phrasings, but in the real world native Anglophones don't normally have to consider such things. Therefore, I suggest that OP's cited "test" here is ill-conceived, to say the least. Personally, I think it's misleading to baldly suggest that only #2 is "correct". Jan 30 at 14:22
  • Pullum, I believe, has argued that only hidebound traditionalists make a fuss over 'misplaced modifiers' when they are neither misleading nor ridiculous-sounding. But (c) could default to 'When they were travelling abroad, ...'. Only (b) does not violate the Gricean maxim of manner. Jan 30 at 15:40
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes, and he's right. But it took him a while to come round to my way of thinking ;-) Jan 30 at 16:02
  • 1
    As so often, the project of checking understanding by means of multiple choice is shown up as unsatisfactory. They never provide "e. Depending on the reader's background knowledge any of them can sound odd, for example, if the previous paragraph had been about Melanie's Aunt. The rule of thumb, therefore, should really be "if in doubt, use the names.". But aren't these cases where the problem is not strictly one of grammar or even 'usage', since as many of us trip over this problem unnoticed from time to time as who rigorously and 'correctly' avoid it.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 30 at 16:57

1 Answer 1


Grammatically, a) (and d) for that matter) could be said to be correct. The fact that it is not acceptable is due to the ambiguity of reference of the pronoun "she". It could refer both to Melanie and her sister. It is better to avoid sentences where you are not sure which noun is replaced by the pronoun.

b) successfully elucidates the ambiguity by dropping "she" and stating clearly the subject of each verb: It is her sister that lived abroad, not Melanie.

a) and d) are cases of ambiguous pronoun reference:

An ambiguous pronoun occurs when a sentence contains two possible antecedents, leaving the reader or listener unaware of which the pronoun is referring to, also known as a faulty pronoun reference. As a way to avoid ambiguity, it is best to place the pronoun close to its antecedent ... or replace the pronoun with the correct noun. (Study.com)

  • 1
    Pullum has said that we may be over-zealous in condemning 'misplaced modifiers' as ungrammatical. Jan 30 at 15:41
  • Which is why I did not use the term "ungrammatical".
    – fev
    Jan 30 at 15:55
  • I'd not use 'Grammatically, a) (and d) for that matter) could be said to be correct' as I'd feel I'd violated Grice's maxim of quantity. Jan 30 at 16:11
  • Some people who make up tests can't tell the difference between ambiguous and ungrammatical. Don't forget, ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. Jan 30 at 17:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.