Episode 210: February 25, 2010
by Bonnie Trenga
Pronouns and Their Antecedents
Today we’re going to talk about pronouns that don't clearly match up with the nouns they are supposed to replace. Readers become unhappy when they have to guess what noun a writer is talking about, or readers may even chuckle if a pronoun seems to match up with the wrong noun. Later, you’ll see some sentences that are funny all because of little pronouns.
Quick Pronoun Review
If you're a regular reader, you'll remember that last week we talked about subject and object pronouns. Pronouns take the place of nouns. For example, “I” and “we” are pronouns that appear in the subject position, as in “We wrote a hit song.” Think of pronouns as stuntmen or women filling in for nouns when the going gets tough--or nouns just get tired.
The pronouns “me,” “him,” “her,” “you,” “us,” “them,” and “it” must be in the object position, as in “The batter hit the ball to me.”
Other pronouns you might encounter are possessive pronouns such as “mine” and “hers” and indefinite pronouns such as “anyone” and “somebody.” You’ll run into even more kinds of pronouns, but we don’t have time to list them exhaustively here.
What Is an Antecedent?
Whatever kind of pronoun you have, the pronoun takes the place of a specific noun you’ve already mentioned. The noun that a pronoun refers to is called an antecedent.
That’s spelled with an “a-n-t-e,” not an “a-n-t-i.” "Anti-" is a prefix meaning “against,” as in “antisocial.” “Ante” is a prefix for things that go before other things; “ante mortem” means “before death,” for example.
In the sentence “The driver totaled his car,” the word “his” refers back to “driver,” so “driver” is the antecedent of the pronoun “his.” It would sound silly to repeat the noun: “The driver totaled the driver’s car.” So, in simple sentences like this, readers are clear on what pronoun is replacing what noun.
On the other hand, when you have a complicated sentence or series of sentences, your antecedent may get lost—or may even be absent!—and readers can get confused. Let’s look at three common pronoun-antecedent problems.
Problem 1: Missing or Faraway Antecedents
"It" and "they" seem to be especially tempting to use without an antecedent or with the wrong antecedent, so be especially vigilant around them.
Our first antecedent problem concerns antecedents that are missing or very far from their corresponding pronouns. For example, it would be incorrect to write, “Here at work they expect us to show initiative” (1). In that case, “they” does not refer back to any plural noun. Those lurking bosses are implied but not actually mentioned. Therefore, the antecedent is missing. To solve this particular error, we just need to name who “they” is: “Our bosses expect us to show initiative.”
Now for the first of those silly sentences we promised you. This one comes courtesy of the useful Grammar Desk Reference: “Breathe in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds, then breathe out through your mouth” (2). This crazy sentence illustrates how easy it is for readers to accidentally think that the antecedent is the noun closest to the pronoun. The pronoun “it” seems to refer to “nose,” the singular noun closest to the word “it”; however, the writer did not mean for you to hold your nose. What’s missing here is a clear antecedent: “your breath.”
For some reason the pronouns "it" and "they" seem to be especially tempting to use without an antecedent or with the wrong antecedent as you saw in the last two examples, so be especially vigilant around them (3). “It” and “they” also seem to be likely to appear far from their antecedents. Making your reader search through an entire paragraph to find the antecedent for a lagging "it" or "they" won't endear you to your audience (4). So when you use an “it” or a “they,” make sure a specific and definite antecedent is nearby.
Problem 2: Anticipatory Reference
Our second antecedent problem is what’s called “anticipatory reference,” which Bryan Garner calls “the vice of referring to something that is yet to be mentioned (5)," meaning that the writer puts the pronoun before the antecedent—a no no.
Whoever came up with the phrases “Don’t put the cart before the horse” and “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” could have been talking about pronouns that appear before their antecedents. For example, if you say, “If it’s available, be sure to order the champagne,” your readers will wonder what “it” refers to. Only when readers get to the end of the sentence do they learn that “it” means “champagne.”
To avoid confusing your readers, make sure the antecedent comes first. In many cases, you can solve the problem by switching around the noun and pronoun: “If champagne’s available, be sure to order it.”
Problem 3: Ambiguous Antecedents
The third and last antecedent problem concerns ambiguous antecedents. Pronouns pop up in almost every sentence, and sometimes readers may feel as if they are juggling. They’re trying to remember which nouns have already been mentioned so that they can correctly match them up with later-appearing pronouns. Don’t turn your readers into a circus act. Your job is to provide a pleasurable and easy reading experience. Ensure that your pronouns and antecedents are clearly marked.
Take this odd pair of sentences, in which we meet an ambiguous antecedent: “The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. It was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.” That’s a pretty big light bulb! The pronoun “it” could, in theory, refer to various singular nouns in this sentence: “room,” “chair,” “desk,” or “light bulb.” Naturally, readers pair “it” with “light bulb,” the closest singular noun, and so you get an absurd sentence.
In this case, repeating the antecedent could help, but it sounds awkward: “The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. The room was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.” A better move is to combine the sentences: “The room, twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide, contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb.”
Here is the last promised ridiculous sentence, this one quoted from a church bulletin and featured in Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I hope this odd sentence will convince you to monitor your pronouns more carefully: “The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind, and they can be seen in the church basement Friday afternoon” (6). The pronoun “they” finds itself in an awkward position. Does it refer to the ladies or the clothing? Well, we can guess that “items of clothing” is the intended antecedent, but it doesn’t appear that way.
Of course, there's another problem with that sentence--one could also interpret it to mean the church ladies are running around in their birthday suits, but we'll save that problem for another day.
Pronouns seem fairly easy to use, but don’t let them lull you into a false sense of security. Start monitoring your pronouns and ensure they have an unambiguous antecedent that is both before and near each pronoun.
Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
Grammar Girl iPhone App
Finally, don't forget to check out the Grammar Girl iPhone app, available at iTunes for only $1.99.
1. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, pp. 170-72. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
2. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, pp. 170-72. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
3. Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. 2005. Grammar Desk Reference, pp. 170-72. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
4. Stilman, A. 1997. Grammatically Correct, pp. 250-52. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
5. Garner, B. 2009. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, pp.50-1. New York: Oxford University Press.
6. Hale, C. 2001. Sin and Syntax, pp. 48-9. New York: Random House.
Web Bonus for Teachers
Identify the problem in these sentences:
A. That's what they want you to think.
B. When you get close to her, grab Snuffles by the collar and get her inside.
C. When the officer chased the burglar through the park he broke his ankle.
D. Green's second single sold more than her first single. Its lyrics about broccoli had the critics scratching their heads.
E. It couldn't have been more clear.
F: If it isn't shipped on dry ice, the ice cream will melt.
A. "They" has no antecedent. It isn't clear who "they" are.
B. The first pronoun, "her," comes before the antecedent, "Snuffles."
C. It's not clear which subject is the antecedent for "he." It could be either the officer or the burglar.
D. It's not clear whether "Its" refers to the first single or the second single. The antecedent is ambiguous.
E. "It" has no antecedent.
F. The pronoun, "it," comes before its antecedent, "the ice cream."]