Is there any help for interpreting a passage written like this?

1. Jane thought the car was ugly. Because she thought it was necessary, Mary washed the car.

If I were personally writing this, I would rewrite it to be more clear. But, if I'm not the author, are there any rules to help me determine whether 'she' is Jane or Mary?  When trying to find out the answer to this question, I ran across the "last antecedent rule".  (I am not a lawyer, or studying to be one.)  It is a doctrine for the legal interpretation for statutes by which "Referential and qualifying phrases, where no contrary intention appears, refer solely to the last antecedent." If I apply this rule, I would think 'she' would be Jane. Does this rule apply in the same way when making a literary interpretation?

How far does a reference need to before it the passage becomes completely non-ambiguous?  Suppose I add one sentence:

2. Jane thought the car was ugly. Dust covered it completely. Because she thought it was necessary, Mary washed the car.

The physical space injected by the middle sentence now lends weight to the idea 'she' is 'Mary,' yet the legal definition I read implies 'she' is still Jane. I wouldnʻt normally say to rewrite this --- I would say 'she' is Mary, but is that reasonable?  Should I rewrite?  How far off does any prior antecedent need to be before this becomes a non-issue?


Last edited by cwm9
Original Post

Hi, cwm9,

@cwm9 posted:

I have read that when reading a sentence for legal purposes, the most recent applicable noun is considered the antecedent when interpreting ambiguous writing.

Actually, in legal writing ambiguity should be avoided by all means, to the extreme of repeating the nouns or using terms like the former ... the latter.

As you must know, the parties to an agreement are usually defined by means of designations describing their roles which will be repeated throughout the document. In your example, we could say that Jane is THE SUPERVISOR and Mary is THE WASHER. In a legal document we would thus find:

Jane (hereinafter "the Supervisor") thought the car was ugly. Because the Supervisor thought it was necessary, Mary (hereinafter "the Washer") washed the car.

In literary writing, context will define the correct meaning and the writer will resort to different strategies to avoid ambiguity.

Last edited by Gustavo, Contributor

Thanks, Gustavo.  I'm not a lawyer and not studying law.  I was trying to learn about rules for determining the antecedent when I ran across the supposed legal rule online.  My understanding is that the rule is intended for use in cases where a document is poorly written, it is not guidance for how documents should be written.  I found on Wikipedia this morning that the rule is a little less stringent than the post I saw lead me to believe --- the rule is not intended to override obvious meanings.  (

Regardless, my interest is not at all legal, but literary, so I reworded my question above to reflect that better.  I also removed some of the more ridiculous examples, since the last antecedent rule wouldn't apply to them anyway according to Wikipedia.

Last edited by cwm9

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