English as a Second Language/Clear meaning


Dear Jed,

"If enemies are threatening sand gazelles, they can run away." (active voice). Is this sentence clear or ambiguous? What does the personal pronoun (they) refer to? We have here to plural nouns 'sand gazelles' and 'enemies' and both are possible antecedents!

In the passive voice, this problem does not appear: "If sand gazelles are being threatened, they can run away." "They" here refer to 'sand gazelles', of course.

Best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

Dear Antoine,

The sentence is potentially ambiguous, but fairly clear in fact. If some enemy is threatening the gazelles, it is unlikely to be the enemy who runs away. You could avoid any ambiguity by saying 'If enemies are threatening them, sand gazelles can run away'.

With best wishes,


English as a Second Language

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Jed Webb


I can assist with questions about English grammar (syntax, morphology, pronunciation and spelling)from learners taking such examinations as TOEFL, IELTS, FCE and CAE and other internationally recognised tests.


I have over forty years of experience in the teaching of modern languages, twenty-four of them in the Teaching of English as a Second Language. I have been an examiner for FCE, BEC and IELTS examinations, and a teacher trainer on courses leading to the Trinity College Certificate in TESOL.

The Philological Society The International Phonetic Association The College of Teachers The International Association of Teachers of EFL The Royal Society of Arts (Fellow)

British Journal of Language Teaching, Vol XIX Nos I and II Education Today, Vol 41, Nos 1 and 3 Co-Author: Nix and Webb (1984) 'Creative English', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen Contributor: Nix and Riederer (1973), 'Bottoms Up', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen Rosenau and Nix, (1979), 'Look it up', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen Nix and Ringholz, 'English in Projects', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen

BA (English), University of Durham. Qualified Teacher Status, UK Department of Education and Science Further and Adult Education Teacher's Certificate, City and Guilds of London Institute ACP(TESOL), College of Preceptors Dip TESOL, Trinity College, London Dip Ed (ELT), Exeter University ACP (Management Studies in Education), College of Teachers Certificate of Proficiency in the Phonetics of English, International Phonetic Association

Past/Present Clients
I have taught: General and Business English classes for: Alcan, Allianz Versicherung, Robert Bosch, Daimler-Benz, Ford, Hewlett Packard, Kodak, Mövenpick, Radiomobil (O2), Siemens, Unilever. TOEFL and FCE classes for: eská Spoitelna,SOB, Czech Ministry of Trade, Czech Statistics Office.

©2016 About.com. All rights reserved.