Is this allowable? It is fairly clear what is meant, and yet one cannot know for sure which object is being referred to each time "them" is used.


Sweets are bad for your teeth. If you eat them, it could damage them.

or even the other way around....

Sweets are bad for your teeth. You could damage them if you eat them.

  • 1
    I try to eat my sweets without damaging them.
    – user16269
    Mar 13, 2012 at 8:52
  • Best not to try to eat your teeth then.
    – Urbycoz
    Mar 13, 2012 at 8:54
  • Why can't you know for sure which object is being referred to each time "them" is used? Clearly, eating teeth won't damage sweets. If you mean the grammar alone won't tell you, that's true of most English sentences. ("Mary saw the beautiful blue color of the bicycle in the store window. She really wanted it." Does she want the store, the window, the color, or the bicycle?) Mar 13, 2012 at 8:57
  • @DavidSchwartz So grammatically it's ok. But, in terms of clarity it's not so good. Would you say it is better to avoid it as a rule, or is it very dependant on whether the sentence can be misinterpreted?
    – Urbycoz
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:03
  • Where it's clear, it's fine. But if it can be misinterpreted, avoid it. If Mary really wanted that color for the floors in her kitchen or wanted the shop window for an art project ... Mar 13, 2012 at 9:05

1 Answer 1


Allowable? Sure. Recommended? No.

When writing, sometimes an awkward sentence reveals that a revision is in order.

In this case, you could try to clarify them thems:

Sweets are bad for your teeth. You could damage your teeth if you eat sweets.

but then the second sentence sounds rather repetitious. Best to just get directly to your point:

Sweets can damage your teeth.

  • 2
    Do you have a problem with: "Many people are unable or unwilling to leave an abusive spouse. They think they need them. They think they can't live without them. But the truth is, they are better off without them." Mar 13, 2012 at 9:11
  • 2
    @David Schwartz: That didn't read awkward to me. It's sad, but not awkward.
    – J.R.
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:19
  • We don't even notice if it's grammatically ambiguous provided that logic makes it very clear what is what. There are so many "they"s and "them"s in there, all of which are grammatically ambiguous. However, if it's even a little bit logically unclear, it often reads badly. Mar 13, 2012 at 9:22
  • 1
    @David Schwartz: Agreed, which is why I said awkwardness provides the clue that revisions are in order - not the use of pronouns - and why I recommended a revision "in this case."
    – J.R.
    Mar 13, 2012 at 9:35
  • +1 for "Recommended? No." It's not the fact that it's grammatically ambiguous - which is largely irrelevant, since semantically there's no issue at all. It's the fact that it's anomalous, and therefore distracts from the purpose of making a statement (to communicate) by making us notice the choice of phrasing rather than the intended meaning. Mar 13, 2012 at 14:24

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