You need to avoid at least three kinds of pronoun-antecedent problems: missing or faraway antecedents, anticipatory references, and ambiguous antecedents.
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.
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.
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 to any plural noun. Those lurking bosses are implied but not actually mentioned. Therefore, the antecedent is missing. To solve this particular error, we you could name the people instead of using a pronoun. You could say, “Our bosses expect us to show initiative.”
Of course, an antecedent isn’t always in the same sentence as your pronoun. If your previous sentence is about your bosses, it might be fine for the sentence to read “Here at work they expect us to show initiative.” Still, it’s a good idea to keep your pronoun close to your antecedent, so you might want to flip the sentence around. “The bosses gave us a talking to last week. They expect us to show initiative here at work.”
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 misleading 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 the readers get to the end of the sentence do they learn that “it” means “champagne.”
To make it easy for 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.” 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."]