Pronoun reference is hard

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But you'd expect someone in the advertising business to be more aware. Reader RR spotted this unfortunately ambiguous sign in a bus shelter in Milwaukee:


  1. Christopher Henrich said,

    July 10, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

    If only it were ambiguous.

  2. ALB said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 2:08 am

    My preferred reading is the most unfortunate one also…a demonstrative (e.g. "this") instead of the second "it" could have been slightly better, but the whole thing is just pretty clumsy.

  3. Keith said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 2:10 am

    If I try, I can read it the wrong way… but I need to try.

    It would have been so simple to write "It's OK to talk about it. In fact, we encourage you to."

  4. Mike Casey said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    And maybe the last sentence isn’t necessary.

  5. Alexander said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 7:18 am

    I can't really get the "wrong" meaning, just the intended one, even though I understand the ambiguity. I grew up and live in Minneapolis-St. Paul (with a couple years spent in Vancouver, BC) — maybe it's an upper midwest thing?

  6. Ellen K. said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    ALB's suggestion of using "this" in place of the 2nd it seems wrong. Like, incorrect use of "this" in someway. "It" is definitely the correct pronoun/demonstrative choice. And "this" is really still ambiguous.

    The actual language of the poster is perfectly okay English, just with an unfortunate ambiguity. One that, to me, seems not truly ambiguous, in that it's easy to understand the point, but the ambiguity does detract from the message. The way the first and second "it" parallel each other makes it too easy to see them as meaning the same thing.

    I like Keith's suggestion of "In fact, we encourage you to".

  7. Craig said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 10:33 am

    I had to think for a moment to figure out what the problem was. The intended reading seems like the natural one.

  8. KevinM said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 11:39 am

    Same problem with naming your charity "The Cancer Foundation" or the "Child Kidnapping Initiative." Sounds like you're for what you're against.

  9. Hans Adler said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

    I think it might actually be intentional. The main problem in advertising is catching people's attention. If someone notices the ambiguity, attention is practically guaranteed. A lot of people might actually discuss the ad with others because of the ambiguity. (Here, for example.)

    I don't think this positive effect is offset by any negative effect. For that the intended meaning it too obvious.

  10. mgh said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

    part of a large campaign by the dept.

    not shown in photo is the header "WI, we need to talk…"

    from the website:
    "Talking about human trafficking is hard. It’s OK to talk about it. In fact, we encourage it."
    I understand the cheeky/purposeful misinterpretation but the ad seems like an effective message to me, not confusing.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    ALB's suggestion of using "this" in place of the 2nd it seems wrong. Like, incorrect use of "this" in someway. "It" is definitely the correct pronoun/demonstrative choice. And "this" is really still ambiguous.

    How about "that"?

    (Disclaimer: I'm coming from a language that doesn't even distinguish "this" from "that".)

  12. Alexander said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

    @David Marjanović: "That" does sound better than "this" to me, but the current version still sounds the best.

  13. David Morris said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

    @KevinM: yesterday an article I edited had a reference to National Pain Week. I couldn't help wondering what they were planning to do.

  14. Anthony said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

    From "Personal Poem" (Frank O'Hara):

    a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
    disease but we don't give her one we
    don't like terrible diseases…

  15. chris said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

    @KevinM: Or the fire department?

    A weirdly mixed example is the U.S. department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I'm pretty sure they're in favor of customs enforcement.

    The word "awareness" is sometimes useful in these situations. Domestic Violence Awareness Month sounds like a much more worthy endeavor than the alternative…

  16. GeorgeB said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

    My mind wants to find a noun as the antecedent for the second it (perhaps any pronoun). While grammatically possible, "to talk" thus seems like a disfavored antecedent, which may be why I incline towards the unfortunate meaning.

  17. PeterL said,

    July 14, 2018 @ 5:37 pm

    Aren't you linguists able to recognize a double entendre? ;)

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