## Subsection7.2.5Referential Ambiguity - Pronouns

The job of noun phrases is to refer to things. Ambiguity arises when we can’t tell which things.

Pronouns are often a problem. To decide on the meaning of a sentence that contains a pronoun, we have to determine the pronoun’s referent (the thing to which it refers). Sometimes that’s straightforward. Sometimes it isn’t.

Here’s an easy case: Jen saw Bill at the movies. She went over to talk to him.

We’ll assume that there isn’t any larger, complicating context and that names are being used conventionally. Then “she” must refer to Jen and “him” must refer to Bill.

But there are harder cases: The dog spotted the cat on the lawn. It ran away.

Now it’s possible that either the dog or the cat decided to run.

### ExercisesExercises

#### Exercise Group.

1. Consider:

[1] Crystal told Sherry that her sister wanted to meet her for lunch.

Now consider:

I. Crystal’s sister wanted to meet Crystal for lunch.

II. Crystal’s sister wanted to meet Sherry for lunch.

III. Sherry’s sister wanted to meet Sherry for lunch.

IV. Sherry’s sister wanted to meet Crystal for lunch.

##### Part 1.

How many of these is/are possible paraphrase(s) for what Crystal told Sherry?

##### Part 2.

Why is [1] ambiguous?

Fill in the blank. Accept anything that contains the word “pronoun” or “pronouns” or “her”.
Solution.
Explanation: The problem is the two occurrences of the pronoun “her”. Each could refer either to Crystal or to Sherry.

### ExercisesExercises

#### Exercise Group.

A Winograd schema (named after the linguist/philosopher Terry Winograd) is a sentence that mentions two objects and contains a pronoun that could refer back to either of them. We then ask a person (who can use world knowledge) to decide on the referent of the pronoun. In a properly designed Winograd schema, it is possible, by changing a single word in the sentence, to change the answer that a person will give.

Consider: The toaster won’t fit in the box because it is too big.

##### Part 1.

“it” refers to:

1. the toaster

2. the box

Solution.

Explanation: It must be the toaster that is too big. If the box were big, there’d be no problem getting the toaster inside it.

##### Part 2.

Which of the following words would, if changed, change your answer to Part 1:

1. toaster

2. box

3. big

Solution.

Explanation: If we changed “big” to “small”, then “it” must be the box, which, if small, might very well not be able to contain the toaster.

### ExercisesExercises

#### Exercise Group.

A Winograd schema is a sentence that mentions two objects and contains a pronoun that could refer back to either of them. We then ask a person (who can use world knowledge) to decide on the referent of the pronoun. In a properly designed Winograd schema, it is possible, by changing a single word in the sentence, to change the answer that a person will give.

##### Part 1.

“they” refers to:

2. the students

Solution.

Explanation: Rarely do we talk about whether students would be delicious. So, in this example, all we need to do is to ask which of the available groups could possess the stated property (namely, being delicious.)

##### Part 2.

Which of the following words, if inserted in place of “delicious”, would change your answer to Part 1:

1. hungry

2. oatmeal

3. expensive