Pronouns and Antecedents
Avoid the three most common errors.
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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.