Q. This is an excerpt from an investigative report:
Officer Doe said that Sgt. Smith takes sleeping pills while on duty. Officer Jones stated that on a couple of occasions, Sgt. Smith gave him sleeping pills to help him relax. When asked what time of day he would take these pills, Officer Jones responded, around 11:30 p.m.
It was unclear to me who he referred to, and I asked the writer for clarification. The answer I received from the writer was “The pronoun he refers to the last male proper name mentioned, therefore Jones, but I’ll make it clearer.” I had not heard this before. Is this a rule of writing?
A. Although it’s true that readers tend to think that a pronoun refers to the last name or noun mentioned, it’s not true that the pronoun always does so. For example,
The policeman gave the sergeant his phone number.
No one would think his referred to the sergeant. Or
Jed loves music, and Mark knows he buys recordings of operas. When asked where he buys them, Mark said, “Online.”
Mark is the last male proper name, but he probably refers to Jed. So the actual rule is that if there’s any doubt, the writer must clarify. I agree with you that the sentence you quoted needs clarification.