Pronouns and Antecedents

You need to avoid at least three kinds of pronoun-antecedent problems: missing or faraway antecedents, anticipatory references, and ambiguous antecedents.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
7-minute read


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 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,” “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.” There are even more kinds of pronouns. The world is full of them.  

What Is an Antecedent? 

Sometimes, a pronoun can stand on its own and the meaning is clear. When I say “I am visiting Aardvark later,” I don’t need to say my name first. “I” stands alone. And when I say, “Somebody left cookies in the lunchroom,” we don’t know who that somebody is, so we couldn’t use a noun even if we wanted to. 

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But other times, for your meaning to be clear, you need your pronoun to be referring to someone or something you’ve already mentioned. And when you set it up that way, the noun that the 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; for example, an antecedent goes before the pronoun, and “ante mortem” means “before death.”
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.” In simple sentences like this, readers don’t get confused about 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.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.