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He thought back to what it must have been like for Mr. Jensen when he first picked up a Wall Street Journal at his first job as a quote marker back in the early 1920's.

The first He is supposed to be a personal pronoun referring to a person who was the subject of previous sentences. The second he (it follows the word "when") is supposed to refer to Mr. Jensen. My question is: is this correct? Because I am a bit confused. From reading it I cannot tell whether the second he is interpreted by the reader to be a reiteration of the first He, or whether it is interpretedby the reader to refer to Mr. Jensen. The tenses don't change since both the regular narration and the thought(s) of the first He are both in the past tense. So, is this correct, or not, and even if this is technically correct is there a more "proper" or less confusing way to write it? Or should I not even be getting confused....

Thanks
Comments  
Hi,
I'd say your interpretation is technically correct, but I'd also agree with your feeling that it is confusing.

I might say:
'He thought back to what it must have been like for Mr. Jensen when the latter first picked up a Wall Street Journal at his first job as a quote marker back in the early 1920's.'

or maybe recast the sentence a bit:
'He thought back to Mr. Jensen's first picking up a Wall Street Journal at his first job as a quote marker back in the early 1920's, and wondered what it must have been like for him.'

Best wishes,
Clive
The alternate interpretation has him, the thinker, thinking back at the time when he, the thinker, first picked up a Wall Street Journal at his first job, the thinker's first job, in the early 1920's.

This leaves Mr. Jensen hanging about as pretty much irrelevant to anything else in the sentence. At this point we need to ask ourselves if anyone would seriously consider writing such a bizarre sentence. The answer is no, and we must revise our hypothesis about the possible meaning of the sentence and roundly reject the alternate interpretation, no matter how technically correct it is. Emotion: smile

This is, however, a wonderful analysis in terms of work with machine translation or machine understanding of language. It is the sort of analysis that is necessary in order to program the machine to reject the alternate interpretation as "off-the-wall", because with less sophisticated programs the machine is going to "think" that both interpretations are equally good.

CJ
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Hi,
Technically, should a pronoun not be considered to relate to the most-recently mentioned and suitable noun? If so, that simple rule could easily be programmed into a transation machine.
Clive
Thanks for the replies guys, I think my concerns about the sentence have been cleared up, and it makes sense to me when I read it now.
Hi, Clive,

I think your general rule usually works, but if we both tried hard enough (and my brain is not feeling up to it at the moment), I'm sure we could invent quite a few counterexamples.

I think we know instinctively what's what (and who's who) in the following, for example:

He told his brother that he was feeling sick and asked him to take him home with him before he threw up on him. He agreed to take him home.

Jim
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Hi Jim,
Yeah, you're right, of course.
I find it a little confusing to my mind on this forum, occasionally, because sometimes we seem to be talking about grammar rules in a strict sense and other times we are talking about actual usage, even instinct if you like. I guess that's what makes it such an interesting, challenging and enjoyable subject!
Clive
GormenghastHe thought back to what it must have been like for Mr. Jensen when he first picked up a Wall Street Journal at his first job as a quote marker back in the early 1920's.

The first He is supposed to be a personal pronoun referring to a person who was the subject of previous sentences. The second he (it follows the word "when") is supposed to refer to Mr. Jensen. My question is: is this correct? Because I am a bit confused. From reading it I cannot tell whether the second he is interpreted by the reader to be a reiteration of the first He, or whether it is interpretedby the reader to refer to Mr. Jensen. The tenses don't change since both the regular narration and the thought(s) of the first He are both in the past tense. So, is this correct, or not, and even if this is technically correct is there a more "proper" or less confusing way to write it? Or should I not even be getting confused....

Thanks