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Lindsey told Jessica that she had cancer.

Who had cancer? Is there any rule in English to claim it definitely?

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    No - that statement is ambiguous. The only way to clarify it is with more context. – Matt E. Эллен Mar 25 '12 at 11:12
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    An admittedly less than elegant solution is to disambiguate by repeating the noun (in brackets): Lindsey told Jessica that she (Lindsey) had cancer or Lindsey told Jessica that she (Jessica) had cancer. – Shoe Mar 25 '12 at 16:20
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    If Lindsey was a man, the ambiguity would be gone. – J.R. Mar 25 '12 at 18:59
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    "She" could be anyone. Jessica, Lindsey, or any other person of the female gender. – Bread May 26 '18 at 11:26
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    The question's been answered by the first comment. There is no such rule in English. There are putative rules which contradict one another, as always when authoritative ignorance is allowed, but no grammatical rule can disambiguate coreference when there are several possibilities. That requires either more context, more presupposition, a different structure, or blind guessing. Language is often ambiguous, and that's a blessing because we can never specify everything in advance. – John Lawler May 27 '18 at 17:29
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This sentence is syntactically correct but semantically ambiguous. One may rewrite it as

Lindsey told Jessica that the former had cancer

to mean that Lindsey had cancer or

Lindsey told Jessica that the latter had cancer

to mean that Jessica had cancer.

  • 1
    So there's no rule to determine which noun the pronoun refers? For example, in Russian there's a rule that a pronoun should refer to the last noun in front of it. – nikkou Mar 25 '12 at 11:49
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    @FronSTAN: there is no such rule in Russian. All native speakers of Russian in our chat right now find the Russian equivalent of the sentence in question just as ambiguous. – RegDwigнt Mar 25 '12 at 12:11
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    I think Will's answer is good (+1), but the wording of his suggested rewrites is not something you would write in, say, a fictional story. It is too formal. You could write something like -- Lindsey told Jessica, "I have cancer." Or -- Lindsey told Jessica, "You have cancer." – JLG Mar 25 '12 at 15:01
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    @JLG - although in a story, unless it's set in a hospital and Lindsay was the doctor it's likely that first – mgb Mar 25 '12 at 15:36
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    I'm sure that Russian grammarians are just as good as English-speaking ones at making up rules about their language and supposing that because they've made them up they must be true. And I'm sure that Russians are just as good as English speakers at talking their language the way it is, not the way that some grammarian has imagined it should be. – Colin Fine Mar 27 '12 at 0:36
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The best way to clarify the statement is to use direct speech instead of indirect speech.

"I have cancer" said Lindsey to Jessica

if Lindsey had cancer, or

"You have cancer" said Lindsey to Jessica

if Jessica had cancer.

  • In case you hadn't read how bounties work english.stackexchange.com/help/privileges/set-bounties and on SO meta the answer to the question Can I award a bounty to myself if I provide the best answer? It should be mentioned in the former link, but for some reason it's not :( – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '18 at 6:48
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    This is dialogue, and, therefore, not really relevant. – Lambie Jun 9 '18 at 15:01
  • @Lambie not really dialogue, it is reported speech. See original text. – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '18 at 17:45
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    @Mari-LouA Dialogue or quoting spoken language. The original is reported speech. This answer is either quoting the person or part of a dialogue. Ergo, it does not work as the OP didn't ask for dialogue or quoting speech. It involves a change of form, and is therefore irrelevant here. – Lambie Jun 9 '18 at 17:53
4

It's ambiguous in writing, but not necessarily in pronunciation. See my answer to this previous question: When "who" is an antecedent .... William Cantrall pointed out the pitch agreement in English between antecedent and pronoun that can disambiguate such sentences.

In the example "Lindsey told Jessica that she had cancer", prolong the "she" and say both "Lindsey" and "she" with rising pitch, but use falling pitch for "Jessica" -- now "she" refers to "Lindsey". On the other hand, say both "Lindsey" and "she" with falling pitch, but pronounce "Jessica" with rising pitch -- now "she" refers to "Lindsey".

  • Yes, emphasis can do it and but repetition also works: that she Lindsey has cancer, for that meaning. But your solution is for speech only. – Lambie Jun 9 '18 at 17:55
2

Lindsey told Jessica that she had cancer.

As others have said, this original is ambiguous.

While I do think the most logical assumption is that the first cannot know something the second does not know about themselves, and that in the unusual case that they do, the context would have let us know they were a medical professional, even many people do not assume the most common by default.

Another good answer used "former and latter" . This is definitely a proper approach, however, I believe those words can baffle too many people and can also sound a bit formal. I'm not sure a 4th grader would understand "former" and "latter" ... as simple as they should be, people get flustered with them like adding fractions is tough for others.

I do not think the following are better, however I do think they are helpful possibilities.

Lindsey has cancer and told Jessica.

or Lindsey has cancer and told Jessica the sad news.

Lindsey learned that Jessica had cancer and told her.

or Lindsey learned that Jessica had cancer and broke that news to her.

These use two verbs that both related to the first named person.

Again, this is a tricky question and many situations with more parties get even harder. The more approaches the better.

  • @user298438 Hey .. can you read this note ? I tried to compromise on the edit.. you really don't like the extra words ? – Tom22 Jun 10 '18 at 0:19
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    @user I see you're not only bothering me but other people's answers too. I should note that whether someone's answer is messy because you think your answer is better, then that's an illusion I'm afraid. Tom doesn't have to make an edit nor does he have to ("should") approve anything // conform to your unending will. If you're gonna offer constructive criticism please (note I say please and not should), specify which part was messy rather than picking at holes. – aesking Jun 10 '18 at 15:52
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    @user298438 I did clean it up again, and it could have used that. It's fine to propose changes or to point those out. The thing was that you repeatedly changed my sample sentences which were core parts of my answer and style orientated. I changed them back and you reverted them, then I added both my longer and shorter samples and you eliminated my longer ones. It got silly that you were changing what I had just changed without a comment first. – Tom22 Jun 10 '18 at 18:25
0

Lindsey told Jessica that she had cancer.

The first comment (that I can see) to this question is what expresses the answer best:

No - that statement is ambiguous. The only way to clarify it is with more context

There is no grammatical key that will unlock the her in the given, isolated sentence. It could be Lindsey, it could be Jessica, it could be a third she that has cancer.

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    This is not a discussion forum; repeating answers is not acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 3 '18 at 22:27
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    @EdwinAshworth Which answer did I repeat? – AmE speaker Jun 4 '18 at 18:32
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    'This sentence is ... semantically ambiguous.' User 2683; March. And note that Matt E. Эллен puts 'No - that statement is ambiguous. The only way to clarify it is with more context.' in a comment as far back as 2012; this is hardly a question suitable for a site aimed at English linguists, and an 'answer' merely invites further such questions. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 4 '18 at 21:54
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    If you don't like the question, downvote it and move on. If you don't like an answer, downvote it and move on. Your objections make you sound like a grumpy old man wanting to control everybody else's actions. You'll never be successful at that. Also, the answer by User2683 does not include the third possibility that she can mean a person other than Lindsey and Jessica. Why don't you actually contribute to this site by writing an answer instead of going around trying to police others? @EdwinAshworth – AmE speaker Jun 5 '18 at 3:05
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    People complain when others don't explain why they are downvoting. And I'd agree that it's usually more helpful to give a reason. Here, there's a strong element of piggy-backing, and the question is too basic for a site aimed at linguists anyway. Keeping the site tidy and on-topic adds to credibility. / You do realise that ELU is intended to be self-policing? Do you do your fair share? I wish none were necessary. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 5 '18 at 9:41
0

This statement is ambiguous. The only way is to clarify it with more context.

Replace "she" with the person who had cancer.

Lindsey told Jessica that Lindsey had cancer.

to mean that Lindsey had cancer, and

Lindsey told Jessica that Jessica had cancer.

to mean that Jessica had cancer.

If we just say:

Lindsey told Jessica that she had cancer.

"She" could be either Lindsey or Jessica. This is an ambiguity.

Another ambiguity is that "she" could be anyone in the female gender. Lindsey, Jessica or any other person of the female gender.

If Lindsey is a man, the ambiguity would be reduced. If both are men, this sentence doesn't make sense in English.

If Jessica is a man, the ambiguity would be reduced too. (Jessica should be a woman, but if you pretend Jessica as a men, the ambiguity would be reduced too.)

  • Added more info about that. – user298438 Jun 9 '18 at 17:35
  • sorry. I will fix it. – user298438 Jun 9 '18 at 17:53
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    And I have never heard of a man, who calls himself as such, named Jessica. How would we know if Jessica were a man? You can make that assumption about any name then. – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '18 at 17:56
  • Jessica should be a woman. But if you pretend Jessica as a man, the ambiguity would be reduced too. – user298438 Jun 9 '18 at 17:58
  • Who downvoted my answer? – user298438 Jun 16 '18 at 15:27

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