Pronoun Reference

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Pronouns generally refer to other words called antecedents because they generally appear before the pronoun. A pronoun’s antecedent may be either a noun or another pronoun, but in either case it must be clear what the antecedent is. Consider this example:

  • Bridget told Ruth that she would take Joe to the barn dance.

It is not clear whether the pronoun she in this sentence refers to Ruth or Bridget. A pronoun must refer unmistakably to a single antecedent. If not, readers will never know with certainty who is going to the barn dance with whom.

Single antecedent

If there is more than one possible antecedent for a personal pronoun in a sentence, make sure that the pronoun clearly refers to only one of them:

  • [WRONG] In the jacket Alyson had borrowed, Maria found the ring she had lost.

The personal pronoun she could refer to either Alyson or Maria.

  • [WRONG] Jerry called Steve twelve times while he was in Vancouver.

The pronoun he could refer either to Jerry or to Steve.

Specific versus implied antecedent

Make sure that a pronoun refers to a specific rather than an implicit antecedent. When an antecedent is implied instead of stated explicitly, the reader has to guess the meaning of the sentence.

  • [WRONG] John put a bullet in his gun and shot it.

The pronoun it can refer either to the noun gun or to the implied object of the verb shot.

  • [WRONG] If I told him he had a beautiful body would he hold it against me?

The pronoun it can refer to the noun body or to the entire statement.

  • [WRONG] The union reached an agreement on Ruth’s fine, but it took time.

The pronoun it can refer to the noun union or to the implied process of decision making.

Possessives and ajectives as antecedents

You should not use adjectives or nouns and pronouns in the possessive case as antecedents because reference to them will be ambiguous:

  • In Ruth’s apology she told Jerry she’d loved him for years.

In this case, the pronoun she seems to refer to the noun phrase Ruth’s apology. However, the pronoun she was probably meant to refer to the possessive noun Ruth’s.

  • Jerry wore that awful green shirt; it was his favourite colour.

In this example, the pronoun it seems to refer to the noun shirt, although it was probably meant to refer to the adjective green.

Misuse of pronouns referring to titles

When drafting a document, do not start an opening paragraph with a pronoun referring directly to the title. Often the title appears on a separate page, and as a result the opening is confusing. Imagine, for example, a document entitled How to Sew Green Shirts. You should not begin the first paragraph with a sentence such as

  • This is not as easy as it looks.

The writer probably wanted the pronoun this to refer to the idea of sewing shirts, but since the idea is not in the body of the text itself, the reference does not make sense.

Using it, they and you

In conversation people often use expressions such as It says in this book that . . . and In my home town they say that . . . . These constructions are informal and allow ideas to be presented casually, without supporting evidence. For formal writing, however, these constructions are either too imprecise or too wordy.

  • [WRONG] In my biography it says that I was born in Whitehorse.

It is unclear in the biography what says that the speaker was born in Whitehorse.

  • [WRONG] In the restaurant they gave me someone else’s linguine.

Who gave the speaker someone else’s linguine?

It would be better to rewrite these two sentences as follows:

  • [RIGHT] My biography states that I was born in Whitehorse.
  • [RIGHT] In the restaurant, the server gave me someone else’s linguine.

In these revised sentences, there is no doubt about what or who is doing what.

The same basic rule applies to the pronoun you. In informal conversation and instructional writing, English speakers often use the pronoun you to mean a hypothetical person or people in general. Formal writing, however, needs to be more precise, and you should be used only when the author would like to address the reader directly (as I am doing here). Consider this example:

  • [WRONG] In the fourteenth century, you had to struggle to survive.

In this case, you obviously does not refer to the reader (who was not alive during the fourteenth century). The sentence can be easily edited so that it expresses the idea more precisely,

  • [RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, people had to struggle to survive.

Or even better yet,

  • [RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, English peasant farmers had to struggle to survive.

Using it consistently

There are three common uses of the pronoun it:

As an idiom
It is snowing.
To postpone the subject
It is untrue that a rhinoceros can run faster than me.
As a personal pronoun
I wanted a rhinoceros for my birthday, but did not get it.

All three uses are found in formal writing, but the pronoun it should not be used more than once within a single sentence to avoid awkwardness:

  • [WRONG] When it is my birthday, I hope to receive a rhinoceros, and I will walk it often.

It would be better to eliminate the first (idiomatic) it:

  • On my birthday, I hope to receive a rhinoceros, and I will walk it often.

Using who, which and that

Writers, editors and publishers have had difficulty establishing clear guidelines for using the relative pronouns who, which and that in formal writing. However, during the last fifty years they have generally agreed that the pronoun who refers to people and may also refer to animals that have names:

  • My mother, who gave me a potbellied pig, must love me very much. My pig, whom I call Spike, wanders at will through the house.

The pronoun which refers to animals and things:

  • The pig, which is a much maligned and misunderstood animal, is really quite affectionate.

Lastly, the pronoun that refers to animals or things and occasionally to people when they are anonymous or part of a group:

  • The hamster that hid behind the television went missing for days.
  • Shaggy dogs that like to swim in the bathtub cause plumbing and enamelling problems for their owners.
  • The answer that everyone missed was Etruscan.

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