You need to avoid at least three kinds of pronoun-antecedent problems: missing or faraway antecedents, anticipatory references, and ambiguous antecedents.
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.” Wow. 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.” Readers’ first inclination will likely be to pair “it” with “light bulb,” the closest singular noun, leading to an an absurd sentence. Your readers will probably figure it out, but you shouldn’t make them work so hard.
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 the book “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 one could also interpret it to mean the church ladies are running around in their birthday suits! Save their dignity by making the antecedent clear.
Pronouns seem fairly easy to use, but don’t let them lull you into a false sense of security. Double check your pronouns to ensure they have an unambiguous antecedent that is both before and near each pronoun.
Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
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."]