1. TheIllustratedMan
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    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

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    Ambiguous pronouns (and how to make them less so)

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by TheIllustratedMan, Jan 21, 2012.

    I was just running a few sample lines through my head, and one stuck in my craw. I'm wondering what you guys think.

    Let's say that I want to describe someone eating some french fries (chips, I guess you British chaps would say). So maybe I write:

    "Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers, wiped them on his pants, and touched an icon on his tablet."

    Technically, "them" in that sentence refers to "salt and grease", but I want it to refer to "his fingers". When I read it, I know what it means, but it's still wrong. I can make it clearer by breaking the sentence up (although, since it's all pretty much one action, I like it better as one sentence).

    "Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers. He wiped his fingers on his pants, then touched an icon on his tablet."

    This sounds super-chunky to me, mostly because I say "his fingers" twice in six words. I still have the problem of the first "his fingers" being in a prepositional phrase, so it's still not referred to by a "them" later on. I suppose I could make the salt and grease adjectives instead of nouns:

    "Greg licked his salty, greasy fingers, wiped them on his pants, and touched an icon on his tablet."

    but this doesn't have the exact same meaning to me. I could make him taste the salt and grease:

    "Greg licked his fingers, tasting the salt and the grease. He wiped them on his pants, then touched an icon on his tablet."

    but now I have two different objects being acted on by one subject with two different verbs, which further muddles what "them" points to.

    How would you make this (or a similar) sentence non-ambiguous and still read smoothly?
     
  2. akexodia
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    akexodia Member

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    Why not write it the other way around:
    "Licking the salt and grease from his fingers, Greg wiped them on his pants and touched an icon on his tab."
     
  3. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    actually, they way you want it to be read is how I read it. But that might be me not knowing english well enough :rolleyes:
     
  4. TheIllustratedMan
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    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

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    That actually makes it sound even more to me like he's wiping the salt and grease on his pants, not his fingers. The real problem is the "from his fingers" part. It's a prepositional phrase, so you could write the sentence and have it make sense without that part. So:

    "Greg licked the salt and grease."

    Adding "from his fingers" just tells you where the salt and grease are, but it's perfectly fine to not include that bit. It's not very informative, but it's a complete sentence. I suppose that I could just be remembering wrong, but a pronoun later on won't point to the preposition, it will point to either the subject or the object. So a "he" would refer to Greg, and a "them" would refer to the salt and grease.

    The other problem with writing it like you have is that by using "Licking", you're saying that the licking and the wiping are occurring simultaneously. For instance:

    "Turning his head slightly, Greg listened to the conversation between the people in the next booth."

    Greg is turning his head and listening at the same time. If we said:

    "Greg turned his head slightly and listened to the conversation between the people in the next booth."

    there's a disconnect between the two actions; he turns his head first, then listens to the conversation. Using "and" makes it almost simultaneous, but not quite.

    Since I don't want Greg contorting himself to lap at his pants while he wipes salt and grease on them, it doesn't quite work for me. But thanks! :-D
     
  5. TheIllustratedMan
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    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

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    Yeah, maybe this is one of those cases where you just assume that most people will read it how you intended, and don't worry about whether it's technically right. Maybe I'm misremembering pronoun assignments too. Maybe someone can clear that up... is it actually correct?
     
  6. Ziggy Stardust
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    Ziggy Stardust Active Member

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    How about this:

    Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers. He wiped his hand on his pants before touching an icon on his tablet.

    ?
     
  7. akexodia
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    akexodia Member

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    Oops! Yeah! You're right about that.

    Okay, after a little thought, I'm beginning tobelieve the fact that, maybe, 'them' does point to the fingers. And, on the other hand, if you were to point to the salt and grease, you would have to use the word 'it'.
    As in, I touched the salt and grease with my fingers and it felt creepy. (There. The salt+grease "combo" feels creepy. and hence, 'it')
    Whereas, if, in the above sentence, I had to indicate that the fingers felt creepy, I'd have written, 'they felt creepy'.

    And I literally LOLed at "Since I don't want Greg contorting himself to lap at his pants while he wipes salt and grease on them, it doesn't quite work for me." :D
     
  8. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    Hi I would use hands.
    Because THEM and FINGERS are vague and could refer to any other 'them or fingers' (Fish Fingers come to mind)

    "Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers. He wiped his fingers on his pants, then touched an icon on his tablet."

    ''Greg licked the salt and grease off his fingers, then wiped his handon his pants, then touched an icon on his tablet''

    the words HANDS are specific to humans and we will know you are talkign about Greg's hands.
    Them and Fingers could anything .
     
  9. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    A train-wreck of a sentence. Aside from the difficulty you've highlighted, it is far from clear what he is touching his tablet with. His nose? His elbow? A poor show. Remember: your reader is a pedant and stupid.:)

    How about these alternatives? They are much better than your example, since they are clear and do not at all look like I've gone to tortuous, hilarious, or absurdly formal lengths in order to avoid an ambiguity which is not an ambiguity.;)

    Having previously licked his fingers free of the salty greasiness and wiped them on his pants, Greg touched an icon on his tablet.

    Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers, wiped his digits on his pants, and touched an icon on his tablet.
     
  10. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    Ouch!!! Iwas sure it was the opposite:redface: :D
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the problem is you're trying to cram too much info into one poor sentence... however, if do it you must, this wording would make better sense:

    this way it's clear enough that the licking, wiping and touching refers only to the fingers...
     
  12. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Logical wording as example above, but:
    "Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers, wiped them on his pants, and touched an icon on his tablet."
    --in this sentence the 'them' clearly refers to the fingers and not the salt and grease. When you check referring pronouns, you track back in the sentence to the first likely plural, in this case, 'fingers', and then check it against your logic. In this case, the salt and grease had been licked off anyway = none left to wipe. And why would you bypass the fingers, and go back as far as salt and grease?
     
  13. TheIllustratedMan
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    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

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    It doesn't matter that the fingers are secluded by a preposition?
     
  14. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You mean from? on? How is it "secluded"? And why would it make any difference? The reference is an object pronoun for a previously mentioned noun.
     
  15. TheIllustratedMan
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    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

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    I'm pretty sure that a prepositional phrase is usually, if not always, independant from the rest of the sentence. It provides more information, but removing it does not alter the meaning of the sentence. So you could remove "from his fingers" and be left with:

    "Greg licked the salt and grease, wiped them on his pants, then touched an icon on his tablet."

    Consider a different sentence:

    "Tim took the gift from his father, his eyes welling up with tears."

    "his eyes" refers to Tim's eyes, and if we remove "from his father" it becomes clearer:

    "Tim took the gift, his eyes welling up with tears."

    So what if we wanted to refer to an object inside a prepositional phrase? In this last example, Tim's father? We can't say "he", because then we mean Tim. So we have to repeat "Tim's father" I guess, to signal change of subject.

    Anyone?
     
  16. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    No. Not 'his eyes', but 'his' is the referring pronoun. You track back until you can find a person and make it possessive, i.e. Tim = Tim's.

    In answer to your last questions, we should always strive to word things so that they are not ambiguous. Look at this:

    EITHER: Tim took the gift his father gave him, his eyes welling with tears.
    OR: Tim took the gift his father, his eyes welling with tears, gave him.
    I'm not saying I would choose to word it like this (I'd use 2 sentences for a start), but in the first, it is clear Tim is crying, and in the second, the father is crying.

    Tim's father gave Tim the gift. Tim took it from him, his eyes welling up with tears.
    it = go back to find an object: the gift.
    him = go back to find the noun for who gave the gift.
    his = go back to find the possessor of the eyes.

    Like I said, track back, and use logic as well as rules.

    I teach grammar, but I have never uttered the phrase 'prepositional phrase' in a classroom.
     
  17. TheIllustratedMan
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    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

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    So let's say that we use two sentences so that we can refer to both Tim and his father.

    "Tim took the gift from his father. His father smiled."

    That's pretty much the only way to do it, right? We can't use a pronoun to refer back to Tim's father, because his father is only an object behind a preposition.
     
  18. AmsterdamAssassin
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    AmsterdamAssassin Contributing Member

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    You cannot wipe your fingers on your pants while licking the salt and grease from them.

    Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers, wiped his hands on his pants, but still used only his little finger to tap the icon on his tablet.
     
  19. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, you don't have to have 2 sentences. You can use a relative clause:

    Tim took the gift from his father, who smiled.

    That's if you really want to, but this kind of sentence-building is more impressive in academic writing and grammar tests than it is in punchy creative writing. It's a bit sterile--comes back to the 'show don't tell' way of writing. The above is all 'tell'.
     
  20. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    Never occurred to me that he'd be touching the tablet with his nose. When someone presses a button, do you have to specify each time that he "Pressed the button with his finger"? Do you have to tell the reader that the character walked with his legs?

    I also don't understand this "tracking back logically" stuff. The sentence has to make sense grammatically for us to know what the author's getting at, and you're correct that your original sentence contains an error. I may be able to induce intuitively that you're referring to the fingers, but I'll have acknowledged your error in the process. Let's look at it again:

    "Greg licked the salt and grease from his fingers, wiped them on his pants, and touched an icon on his tablet."

    Greg is the subject, salt & grease are the direct objects, fingers is the indirect object. So you're right that the next clause is unfortunately referring to the direct object. To fix this, I like:

    Greg licked the grease and salt off his fingers. He wiped his hand on his pants before touching an icon on his tablet.

    or:

    Greg licked his fingers clean of grease and salt, then wiped the fingers on his pants, before touching an icon on his tablet.
     
  21. jonsnana
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    jonsnana Member

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    I like Joanna's solution.
     
  22. astroannie
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    astroannie Member

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    After licking the grease and salt from his fingers, Greg wiped his hands on his pants ...

    That way you don't say "fingers" twice in the same sentence.
     

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