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University of Newcastle Library guides

Common feedback comments and what they mean: Ambiguous sentences: problems with pronouns and determiners

This guide lists some common feedback comments and explains what they mean.

Ambiguous sentences –problems with pronouns and determiners

An ambiguous sentence has two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words. This can confuse the reader and make the meaning of the sentence unclear.

  Look at this example: ‘Mr Smith was found guilty of keeping a protected animal in the Atherton Magistrates Court after being charged with removing a scrub python from a resident's property.’

Problem: This sentence is ambiguous because it is not clear if Mr Smith was guilty of keeping the snake in the Magistrates Court, or guilty of keeping the snake after he caught it from a neighbour’s property.

 Corrected: In the Atherton Magistrates Court, Mr Smith was found guilty of keeping a protected animal, a scrub python, after removing it from a resident's property.’


Pronouns
When you use a pronoun (e.g. ‘it’, ‘they’ ‘he’ ‘she’) always be sure that the reader knows what noun you are referring to.

Example: The dog liked to guard the house and the postman could not make it to the door because he was barking viciously.

Problem with the pronoun: The reader is not sure if ‘he’ refers to the postman or the dog. Is it the dog or the postman barking viciously?

Corrected: The postman could not make it to the door because the dog liked to guard the house and was barking viciously.


Determiners
When you use a determiner (e.g. ‘this’, “that’ ‘those’ ‘these’) always be sure that the reader knows exactly what you are referring to.

 Example: There is a bird in a cage that can talk.

Problem with the determiner: The placement of the word ‘that’ confuses the reader as we do not know if the bird or the cage can talk.

Corrected: In the cage is a bird that can talk.