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Confused by the singular "they"...
October 18, 2012 8:15 PM   Subscribe

GrammarFilter: "Would [my friend] rather have their significant other think they find them ugly, or think they find them stupid?" Is this ambiguously worded? Help me settle a dispute.

My friend and I were playing a facebook game when this question popped up.

I think it could be interpreted two different ways:
(1) Have his significant other think she finds him stupid.
(2) Have his significant other think he finds her stupid.

However, he thinks that if he took the question to 1,000 different English professors, every single one would agree that it can only be accurately read the second way.

Can anyone explain which of us is right and why?
posted by Yma to Writing & Language (25 answers total)
 
Good lord, that's a poorly written sentence. The issue is the use of "they". As it's written, I favor interpretation A, which I would rewrite as, "Would your friend rather their SO think that your friend finds them ugly, or that your friend finds them stupid?" B would be more like, "Would your friend rather their SO thought your friend were ugly or that your friend were stupid?"

I think your friend is wrong, FWIW.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:21 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem isn't grammar. It's grammatically just fine.

It's just awkward as hell. Too many "them"s and "they"s and you lose all context. Who would rather think that who thinks who finds who what?

I guess what you're trying to get across is "Would you rather your SO think you find them ugly or think you find them stupid?"
posted by Sara C. at 8:30 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's terribly written, but it really only makes sense as (2), and that's how I read it (though I had to think about it). Number (1) introduces a redundancy - you don't need her to think she finds him stupid, just to find him stupid. It could make grammatical sense either way, but it wouldn't make much logical sense. Anyway, too many pronouns. Unclear. Reword.
posted by Dasein at 8:32 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure it's the second one. It's have the SO think that your friend finds them stupid, the same way it's have the SO think that your friend finds them ugly.

The "or" should drop into the sentence as late as possible with the sentence still making sense [this is a grammar rule I just made up, mind you] - given the similarity between the part after the "or" and the full clause ending in ugly, that's all you can do.

Plus if your friend is male and their SO is female, your (1) doesn't really make sense. It's going to be very rare for her to think she finds him stupid - wouldn't she just find him stupid? The thinking about this finding requires a level of indirectness.

SO:
                   (find him stupid/ugly).
     [Thinks they] (find him stupid/ugly).
{He} [Thinks they] (find him stupid/ugly).

posted by Lemurrhea at 8:33 PM on October 18, 2012


Yes, it's ambiguous and can go both ways. I tried explaining but it turns out I need to never try to parse this sentence again for my own mental health.
posted by bleep at 8:34 PM on October 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


The problem is grammatical. They and them are plural; substitute singular pronouns (him, her, he, she) and no one would be confused. What makes this difficult is that the incorrect pronouns could be corrected in a few different ways, and each would impart a different meaning.
posted by ellF at 8:35 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Grammatically it is ambiguous. The reason one interpretation seems more natural is the semantics of the specific verb "think". You can tell this by replacing it with different ones:

Would your friend rather have their significant other realise they find them ugly, or realise they find them stupid?"

This is completely ambiguous:

Would James rather have Jill realise she finds him ugly or realise she finds him stupid?
Would James rather have Jill realise he finds her ugly or realise he finds her stupid?

The "think" complicates the matter because it is weird for someone to "think they find someone something" - you generally know if you find someone stupid or ugly.
posted by lollusc at 8:36 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


(To clarify further, the semantics of think mean that it is weirder for the subjects of think and find to be the same than for them to be different. But given enough context, I still think you could force the "same subject" reading so I'd still say they are grammatically slightly ambiguous).
posted by lollusc at 8:40 PM on October 18, 2012


"Ambiguous antecedents."
posted by rhizome at 8:43 PM on October 18, 2012


substitute singular pronouns (him, her, he, she) and no one would be confused

I thought so, and then I tried it. It's fine if the pronouns are of different genders, but if the Subject and the SO are both men or both women, it's just as bad.

This sentence has the "singular they" thing happening in it*, but that's not what causes it to be unclear.

*Which is perfectly grammatical, anyway, so nyah.
posted by Sara C. at 8:44 PM on October 18, 2012


The problem isn't grammar. It's grammatically just fine.

It isn't grammatically fine; it's completely ambiguous about who they are. Ambiguous pronouns are ungrammatical.

Also, what does "have" mean in the sentence? Read it again:

"Would [my friend] rather have their significant other think they find them ugly, or think they find them stupid?"

Does the word "have" actually mean anything there, or is it just taking up space?

Also, "think" and "find" seem to mean roughly the same thing, so it's awkward to use them both together — at least, if the sentence is supposed to be about the significant other finding Bill ugly/stupid.

What you really mean is one of these (assuming your friend's name is Bill):

(1) "Would Bill rather his significant other find him ugly or stupid?" (Notice that this sentence is fine regardless of the significant other's gender. The use of "him" instead of "himself" implies that you're referring to Bill, not the significant other.)

(2) "Would Bill rather his significant other think Bill finds her ugly or stupid?" (Or, if the significant other is also male: "...finds him ugly or stupid?" I don't see any ambiguity there either.)

The original sentence is a perfect example of why grammar and good writing actually matter. The classic rules of English usage (omitting needless words, avoiding ambiguity, and so on) will usually serve you pretty well. Straying from the rules can lead to train wrecks.
posted by John Cohen at 9:00 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Would Jill rather have her girlfriend think she finds her ugly, or think she finds her stupid?"

See, it's equally ambiguous. The problem is not a singular/plural problem.
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 PM on October 18, 2012


In the sentence, two different people are getting assigned the "they" pronoun, and "they"/"them" is repeated a lot in one sentence. So yeah, it's ambiguous. I think it's more likely to be interpreted the second way, but either is correct.

If you get rid of both instances of "think they" it becomes less ambiguous: "Would [my friend] rather have their significant other find them ugly, or find them stupid?"

Better yet: "would you rather be considered ugly or stupid by your significant other?"
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:02 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ambiguous pronouns are ungrammatical.

No they aren't, unless any ambiguous sentence is automatically rendered ungrammatical by virtue of being ambiguous. Which is silly. There's a difference between bad grammar and bad writing.
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 PM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


it's completely ambiguous about who they are.

Not really, unless you're wearing a pedant hat. It's contextually obvious that "they" is a kludgy way to avoid "[Names]'s" in the absence of a programmatic way to replace it with his/hers.

A tighter way to phrase it is to change the tense and say "would X rather be thought ugly or stupid by X's SO", which is not the most common contraction ("thought" for "thought to be") but a valid one. It runs even better in the second person ("Would you rather be thought ugly or stupid?") which is where I think the question is being drawn from, but that doesn't fit the particular context here.
posted by holgate at 9:09 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am adding friend's names for clarity, but I read it as: Would Morgan rather have Mike think that Morgan finds Mike ugly or think that Morgan finds Mike stupid?

So, I interpreted it as a worst case scenario challenge for Morgan to answer, your SO is going to think that you think something bad about him, would you rather it be ugly or stupid?
posted by Brody's chum at 9:21 PM on October 18, 2012


First off, this is not GrammarFilter. There are other sins a sentences can commit besides ungrammaticality. The only thing wrong with this sentence from the point of view of grammar is that it uses plural pronouns where only singular pronouns are appropriate. Except "they" and "them" are no longer exclusively plural pronouns. So it's grammatically correct but still ambiguous.

Not ungrammatical, slightly ambiguous, but not all that ambiguous because:

Would my friend -- "friend" = first definite noun

rather have their -- "their" must refer to first definite noun as no others have been introduced yet

significant other think they -- now two definite nouns have arrived on the scene ("my friend" and "significant other"), and there is no rigid protocol for deciding to which of them "they" refers. HOWEVER, most people at this point will take the last introduced definite noun as the referent of the succeeding pronoun, so this "they," for most people, will refer to the significant other. Then, for the sentence to make sense, the following "them" must refer to "my friend." Then, by parallel construction, since the original referents have been left in the dust by now, the following "they" and "them" will refer same definite nouns as did their previous incarnations.

So #2 has it, by a comfortable margin. No doubt English professor 996 would disagree, but that's pedantry.
posted by bricoleur at 9:50 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can see why one might be confused, but as a rule if you were going to say that I find you stupid, it wouldn't be "I think I find you stupid" - it'd be EITHER "I think you're stupid" or "I find you stupid".

So the interpretation is, would your friend rather their significant other think that the friend considers the significant other stupid, or that the friend considers the significant other ugly?
posted by Lady Li at 11:16 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Technically yes, pragmatically not really, but crying out for a rewrite.
posted by Segundus at 1:11 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doesn't really matter which way around it's supposed to go, since the answer in all cases is clearly "no".
posted by flabdablet at 1:46 AM on October 19, 2012


I agree with Lady Li. Interpretation #2 seems much more likely because it is merely awkward, while #1 is not only awkward but also implies the S.O. might say "I think I find you stupid," which sounds like a coy phrasing copped from some Victorian romance novel. I'd assume 2 because 1 is improbable, not because it's wrong.
posted by jon1270 at 1:48 AM on October 19, 2012


This comes up in computational linguistics by the name of coreference resolution, and this problem would be trivial for any program which was resolving antecedents.

In terms of the larger question, "is it ungrammatical to leave a sentence ambiguous?", the answer is no, the reason being that a big positive of human language is that syntax is constrained to the easily parseable form of a Context Free Grammar (more or less), while semantics remains much more complex, with no tractable formal representation, but constrained by real world knowledge and the syntactic structure describing it, language makes it possible to describe meaning.
posted by ambrosen at 7:12 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, this is a conundrum. Those are definitely ambiguous. Let's play with it a little:

The question being asked in the picture is:

Would [my friend] rather have their significant other think they find them ugly, or would [my friend] rather have their significant other think they find them stupid?

Let's change [my friend] to [me] and test both interpretations:

Would I rather have my significant other think I find them ugly?

or

Would I rather have my significant other think they find me ugly?

That clears it up. The significant other wouldn't think they found me ugly, they would either *think* I was ugly, or they would *find* me ugly. The question is about what the [your friend] would prefer their SO thought about them, not what [your friend] thinks about their SO.
posted by gjc at 9:22 AM on October 19, 2012


For me, it's unambiguously option (b) like your friend said. My reasoning is the same as gjc's. Mr. wouldn't think he found me ugly; he either does or he doesn't. "Think", in this instance, implies that he doesn't know for sure or that he may be wrong. Therefore, it would only make sense that he might think I found him ugly. (And this is something we had to clear up early on in the relationship.)
posted by ethidda at 10:00 AM on October 19, 2012


Editor here.
1. The sentence is grammatically correct. Yes, it's ambiguous, but ambiguity is not per se ungrammatical. (On preview.)
2. The broad consensus today is that the plural 3rd person pronoun is acceptable in reference to an individual in some circumstances, in order to avoid the deep-seated sexism in the English language -- and to avoid calling a she a he.
3. In fact this question demonstrates the latter perfectly: Unless the game knows the gender of the subject, any singular pronoun would would be wrong about half the time.
4. Number 2 is what it's trying to get at. No question.
5. If I were a FB game editor, I'd write around the problem it like this: "Would Joe's significant other rather be considered stupid or ugly -- by Joe?"
6. Let's all praise job security for editors.
posted by LonnieK at 4:14 PM on October 19, 2012


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