Here’s another discussion about the ambiguity of that as a referent.
Is there a grammatical rule stating that a pronoun has to refer to the noun closest to it?
Thanks for writing, Bessie.
Consider it a helpful guideline, not a rule. Common sense, not strict rules, comes into play when deciding to whom or what a pronoun refers. The examples below show how context drives the reference.
1. In this example, the reference is clearly the noun farther from the pronoun (book, not desk): I own the book on the desk, so I have a right to sell it.
2. In this example, the reference is clearly the noun closer to the pronoun (desk, not book): Your book should not be on my desk because it is mine.
3. In this example, both pronouns clearly refer to their antecedents: I’ll put the book on the desk because it matches its color. (Of course, “because their color matches” is preferable.)
4. In this example, the pronoun is ambiguous: The book should not be on the desk because I need to move it.
5. In this example, the pronoun is also ambiguous: I don’t like the book or the desk, so I think I’ll sell it.
Bottom line: A pronoun should refer clearly to one unmistakable noun that precedes the pronoun.
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