I am trying to describe a process. There are two players in the scenario. Player A tries to find player B. If player A finds player B, then player A tags player B. Something like that.

Here is an example:

A fox tries to find a rabbit that is sleeping, and when it finds one it eats it.

Now, I know what each "it" refers to. But how can I rewrite the sentence so it would not sound confusing?

Also, what is the rule when there are two things (fox and rabbit)in the sentence?

Sorry for my naive question, I am very new to this.

  • 4
    It can be argued this is asking what to write, but I think it is a legitimate question with potential to help other people. I myself have this same problem with pronouns occasionally. Jul 7 '16 at 22:34
  • I've edited the question to make it clearer what you're asking. If you don't like the edits, feel free to revert back to what you had. Jul 7 '16 at 22:37
  • First,, thank you for your efforts. Second, I am new to this forum. So, I may have problems when asking questions here due to lack of knowledge about rules.
    – hebbo
    Jul 8 '16 at 2:10
  • 1
    No worries. You can always give the help center a look for guidelines. writers.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic Jul 8 '16 at 3:38
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    While something like this would usually be sent to English, I think it's a good question for Writers too. This is a common problem whose solution is a matter of writing style and personal preference (or a particular style guide's predilections). Jul 11 '16 at 3:40

Hi hebbo and welcome to Writers SE! Generally asking what to write is off topic, but I think this is an exception, because it is actually a common problem in writing (at least for me). It's not a naive question by a long shot; every now and then I have this same problem myself.

The answer is usually to just rewrite the sentence until you get it. Try to determine the root of the problem, as that might help. In this scenario, I can tell that the construction of your sentence may be the issue. It is two independent phrases:

A fox tries to find a rabbit that is sleeping and and when it finds one it eats it.

In order to fix the sentence, I would try weaving the last phrase in with the first:

A fox, trying to find a rabbit that is sleeping, will eat it when it finds one.

Still have two it's in there...

A fox searches, and when it finds a rabbit that is sleeping, will eat it.

So in this case I put in another verb searches, which allowed me to put the whole rabbit part in a separate phrase. So for your construction, it would follow something along these lines:

Player A [verb], and when [pronoun] finds player B, will tag [pronoun].

  • A nitpick: A semi-colon is not used when two independent clauses are joined with a conjunction, like the "and" here. If there was no conjunction, then a semi-colon is required. Like, "A fox tries to find a rabbit that is sleeping; when it finds one it eats it."
    – Jay
    Jul 8 '16 at 16:45
  • @Jay Good catch. I was thinking something was wrong there, but I couldn't say what. Jul 8 '16 at 17:49
  • Since this is a question about tech writing, I think the examples here are particularly useful. (These would be out of place in, say, a novel, but not in a white paper.) Jul 11 '16 at 3:42

I don't think there's any ambiguity in your example. You said that the fox is trying to find the rabbit, so it's the fox that finding, not the rabbit. Thus when you say "when it finds one", clearly "it" refers to the fox and "one" to the rabbit. I suppose theoretically "it eats it" could be ambiguous, but a reader would normally understand that the fox eats the rabbit, and not the other way around.

That is, we can often tell who or what a pronoun refers to from our general knowledge of the world. If the parties conform to common stereotypes, the meaning is clear. If not, if the roles are switched, then you need to reword the sentence to make this clear. "The general met the private and he ordered him to return to the barracks." We'd normally assume that the general gave orders to the private and not the other way around. If it really was the other way around, if the private is giving orders to the general, then you need to reword to make that clear.

In general, a reader assumes that the subject remains the subject, the "active party", unless otherwise specified. For example, consider a slight variation of your example. "The policeman was hunting for the criminal, and when he found him, he shot him". I and I think most readers would understand this to mean that the policeman shot the criminal, and not the other way around, even though it is quite plausible to say that the criminal shot the policeman. We assume that the same person, the policeman in this case, remains the subject throughout. If you wanted to say that the criminal shot the policeman, you'd have to specify that. Like, "The policeman was hunting for the criminal, and when he found him, the criminal shot him."

When the pronouns are different, the problem goes away. "Sally was looking for John, and when she found him, he gave her the box." There's no question about whether "he" refers to John or Sally, because we assume that Sally is a "she" and John a "he". If the sentence used names of ambiguous gender, the problem comes back: "Kelly was looking for Tracy ..." And of course it's possible that someone has a name that we normally associate with the opposite gender.

When in doubt, replace the pronouns with nouns. "Sally was looking for Mary because she was supposed to give her the box." It's not clear who was supposed to give the box to whom. So change one of the pronouns to a noun: "Sally was looking for Mary because Sally was supposed to give her the box." Now it's clear.

Sometimes using nouns would lead you to use the same noun many times in one sentence, which can get awkward. It's helpful if there are multiple nouns you can use to identify a party. "Sally was looking for Mary because she was supposed to give the tall girl the box." If in context we have previously identified one of them as "the tall girl", this makes clear which is which without having to repeat one of the names.

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