How to write this without any confusion? How do I refer 'he' to someone?


I was writing a title in which, I need to mention two men and a woman. But the context made me think twice. I am finding an unambiguous way to tell it in the Title.

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that he's the best husband

The confusion arises as Nick is married! Who's 'he' in the sentence now? I want to say that Nick told the girlfriend that go, marry Arnold, he's the best husband.

In the given title, there are chances that people think that Nick is bragging about himself taunting that no matter what, Arnold cannot be a better husband than him! Just in a friendly offense. They all are friend...good friends in fact.

Maulik V

Posted 2018-08-30T08:03:56.050

Reputation: 66 188

3Out of interest, how does your language deal with this ambiguity? – OmarL – 2018-08-30T13:08:05.063

Aww...just thinking and not getting rid of ambiguity there as well! This was shocking! @Wilson – Maulik V – 2018-08-30T16:58:29.193

1As shown in the answers, we either avoid using an ambiguous pronoun, or allow the context and common sense to clarify it. – Barmar – 2018-08-30T18:03:08.660

Actually, I think that there is no ambiguity in this case because Arnold is not a husband, and therefore cannot be the "best husband" referred to, so the only way to read it is that Nick is talking about himself. If you reword the sentence to allow "he" to possibly refer to Arnold, repetition of the name is probably the best way to avoid pronominal ambiguity: "Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that Arnold would be the best husband for her." – Hellion – 2018-08-30T19:13:02.567



One way to deal with the inherent ambiguity of a pronoun is to use a direct quote instead of an indirect quote. So, if Nick is talking about Arnold, you’d write:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend, “He’s the best husband.”

but if Nick is bragging about himself, we put something different inside the quotation marks:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend, “I’m the best husband.”

If you don’t want to use a direct quote, you can also use the person's name in place of the pronoun:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend that Arnold is the best husband.

As a footnote, if Arnold and his girlfriend aren’t married yet, then Nick should be using a modal verb:

Nick told Arnold’s girlfriend that Arnold would be the best husband.


Posted 2018-08-30T08:03:56.050

Reputation: 108 123

2+1 This is basically what I was writing :) I was thinking he would make the best husband, though I can't articulate the difference. – Em. – 2018-08-30T08:29:05.900

1@Em. - I agree that would make is an even better version. – J.R. – 2018-08-30T08:31:44.657

Hey...@Em. would make... fits perfect! JR, +1! :) – Maulik V – 2018-08-30T09:03:30.410


It's because Arnold's girlfriend has no name that you're in this mess.

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that he himself had made dinner.

Nick made dinner.

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that Arnold had made dinner.

If we use he there, it's ambiguous.

If we know the girlfriend's name:

Nick told Jane that her boyfriend Arnold had made dinner.


Posted 2018-08-30T08:03:56.050

Reputation: 116 610

How does the girlfriend's name make a difference? Nick told her that her boyfriend Arnold had made dinner. – Barmar – 2018-08-30T15:48:27.980

@Barmar: Well, since the original question was about ambiguity: we don't know if her refers to the same person in your sentence. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-08-30T16:52:46.253

You don't know that in your sentence, either. Suppose Jane asks Nick, "What happened to Mary last night?". Your last sentence could be the answer to that, and "her" refers to Mary. – Barmar – 2018-08-30T18:01:42.963

@Barmar: I agree. My sentences are less ambiguous than the OP's but still ambiguous. But that's why I mentioned using the name. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-08-30T18:15:18.480

But the question is about disambiguating "he". Disambiguating "her" is a separate problem that you created yourself, since that word didn't even appear in the original sentence. – Barmar – 2018-08-30T18:26:00.123

@Barmar: I understood the question to be broader than that. Nick told Jane that Jane's boyfriend Arnold had made dinner. would be unambiguous, assuming there's only one of each person so named. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-08-30T18:28:40.217


Grammatically, it's not perfect to refer with a pronoun to a person, not mentioned directly (e. g. 'Arnold's girlfriend' is not much different from 'Arnold's finger'). Here's a similar usage example considered incorrect:

Mark called Mary's house all day, but she never answered the phone.

And the correction suggested there (despite 'she' couldn't point at Mark and the sense is clear enough):

Mark called Mary's house all day, but Mary never answered the phone.

So in your case, where the problem is not only in Nick, it would be (as already recommended):

Nick told Arnold's girlfriend that Arnold would make the best husband.


Posted 2018-08-30T08:03:56.050

Reputation: 2 337


This is a rather peculiar interpretation For instanceWikipedia says "Almost any syntactic category can serve as the antecedent". The problem with your interpretation here is that the example sentence is not ambiguous, as he would have to refer to Nick because Arnold is disqualified by your interpretation.

– MSalters – 2018-08-30T15:11:41.040

This is not my personal interpretation and the source I've quoted is not something unique. The fact the example from it is not ambiguous just makes it a fair 'survival phrase' but not a correct one. Wikipedia doesn't suggest wrong examples illustrating the almost conclusive quote from it. Here's another source, with explanation why a personal pronoun can't refer to a possessive noun: the latter functions like an adjective. (topic: A possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.)

– Alex_ander – 2018-08-31T11:17:31.430

That too shows falwed logic. E.g. it argues against Kevin's fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna based on the fact that it breaks down when you replace "Kevin" with "Agile". Guess what? All sentences with antecedent break down if you remove the person to which the antecedent refers, no matter the context in which that person appears. – MSalters – 2018-09-02T22:16:03.290

A sentence with a non-possessive antecedent won't break down if you replace that antecedent with the same part of speech (i. e. any noun meaning a male person). It will change its meaning but will remain grammatically correct (unlike in case of replacing a possessive noun with an adjective). That educated person is Ms. Robin L. Simmons, a professor of Valencia College in Orlando, FL. Her easily googled example with Kevin's finger (I came across it a couple of years ago) seems to become popular: – Alex_ander – 2018-09-03T09:54:29.050

some other authors use it in their educational materials (e. g. this paper by Missouri University of Science and Technology ). However, that point of view (it exists since 1960s) looks to be considered too sophisticated and is not generally accepted. _

– Alex_ander – 2018-09-03T09:54:38.883

To be explicit: it's a part of a prescriptive grammar, not descriptive. It's how some people think English should work, not how it actually works. And for prescriptive grammars, the key is how widely it's accepted. This rule is not. – MSalters – 2018-09-03T10:46:16.493