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A farmer so loved his cow that he sacrificed her female calf to spare her life during a complicated pregnancy. And whoever (else) would have saved her from perishing would have been justified.

In the second sentence, what must “her” refer to, the cow or her calf?

(note: please do not advise to word the sentence better or correct its structure. I am sincerely interested in surveying the views of those attempting to answer the question GIVEN the way it is. I intend to clarify something for me, perhaps others, regarding possibly a much more significant point. It is also perfectly OK if the responses are ambiguous or the answer cannot be determined. Thank you.)

Last edited by Matt McCullough
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Hello, Matt, and welcome to the Grammar Exchange.

A farmer so loved his cow that he sacrificed her female calf to spare her life during a complicated pregnancy. And whoever would have also saved her from perishing would have been justified.

In the second sentence, what must “her” refer to, the cow or her calf?

Meaning dictates that "her" refers to "her female calf," because the first sentence refers to sacrificing the calf to spare the cow's life and the second sentence includes the adverb "also" ("sacrificing" contrasts with "saving"). In speech, I feel that that "her" should be stressed.

Notice how "her" now refers to the cow:

A farmer so loved his cow that he sacrificed her female calf to spare her life during a complicated pregnancy. And whoever would have otherwise (in any way other than by sacrificing the calf) saved her from perishing would have been justified.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator

I decided to omit the word "also."  I meant for that word to refer to whoever "else" and have nothing to do in determining what "her" should refer to. I apologize for this change.

You are right that "also" could either reinforce "whoever else" or, as I interpreted it at first sight, emphasize "her" (the calf). Therefore, the original sentence was ambiguous unless "her" was stressed to mean "the calf."

A farmer so loved his cow that he sacrificed her female calf to spare her life during a complicated pregnancy. And whoever (else) would have saved her from perishing would have been justified.

In the second sentence, what must “her” refer to, the cow or her calf?

Although the antecedent of the pronoun "her" continues to be unclear and the text continues to be ambiguous, I think that the conjunction "and" tends to create coherence between the second and the first sentence, so the more logical interpretation in this case is for "her" to be identified with "his cow."

If "her" referred to "her female calf," there should be a linker of contrast to indicate that, contrary to the farmer's decision, others might have chosen to save the calf despite the risk that this entailed for the cow's survival:

- A farmer so loved his cow that he sacrificed her female calf to spare her life during a complicated pregnancy. However, whoever would have saved her (the calf) from perishing would have been justified.

My point is that, even though the text is ambiguous, the degree of ambiguity can be deemed to be limited by other elements within the text. In this case, the defective grammatical cohesion and ensuing ambiguity rendered by "her" is softened by the semantic coherence provided by a conjunction of addition.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator

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