Pronoun Reference

Pronouns must always refer clearly to the noun they represent (antecedent). If you understand how pronouns relate to nouns, you can avoid confusion in your writing.

Finding the antecedent

Remember that pronouns stand in for nouns. An antecedent is the noun—or group of words acting as a noun—that a pronoun refers to. Notice the antecedents in the following example.

  • Kelly lifted Mickey into the air and then set him down.

  • The debt plagued John and Sandy. It ruined any chance they had for a peaceful relationship.

Neither of these examples would make a reader wonder who or what is being talked about. Him in the first example is Mickey, It and they in the second example refer to debt and John and Sandy, respectively.

Unclear antecedents

In the following sentences, locate the antecedents of the pronouns.

  • The counselor was speaking to Dave, and he looked unhappy.

Who looked unhappy in this sentence—the counselor or Dave? The reader can't tell. In the following sentence, did the janitors clean the girls or the locker rooms?

  • After the girls left the locker rooms, the janitors cleaned them.

In the second example, your common sense tells you the janitors cleaned the locker rooms and didn't clean the girls. Sometimes you can count on context or common sense to help figure out which pronoun goes with which antecedent, but you shouldn't have to. What about in the first sentence? No clue exists as to whether the counselor or Dave looked unhappy. These are examples of ambiguous pronoun references, which will confuse and frustrate readers.

You can solve the problem in various ways, including changing the sentence structure or eliminating the pronoun, as in the following sentences.

  • The counselor was speaking to Dave, who looked unhappy.

  • After the girls left, the janitors cleaned the locker rooms.

Read your sentences carefully to make sure that all pronoun references are clear.

Indefinite antecedents

More subtle errors occur when you use a pronoun reference that is too general or indefinite or one that only you know.

  • I told Uncle Richard, Aunt Gretchen, and then Dad, which infuriated Gary.

Did telling all three people infuriate Gary, or was it only telling Dad? Rewrite the sentence to make your meaning clear to the reader.

  • First I told Uncle Richard and Aunt Gretchen. Then I told Dad, which infuriated Gary.

  • or My telling Uncle Richard, Aunt Gretchen, and then Dad infuriated Gary.

In the following sentence, no antecedent exists for them. The writer is thinking “bagels” but not specifying them. Bagel shop is not a correct antecedent for them. To solve the problem, restate the noun: substitute bagels for them.

  • Although Mark likes working at the bagel shop, he never eats them himself.

In the next sentence, the antecedent for It is vague, leaving the reader confused. Was it only the sky that filled the observer with hope and joy? Try substituting The scene for It.

  • The hills were lush green, the trees in full bloom, the sky a brilliant blue. It filled me with hope and joy.

What is the exact antecedent for This in the following sentence?

  • The paper was too long, too general, and too filled with pretentious language. This meant Joe had to rewrite it.

A possible rewrite might be as follows.

  • The paper was too long, too general, and too filled with pretentious language. These problems meant that Joe had to rewrite it.

The vague this and the indefinite it are common in writing. It can occasionally be used as an indefinite indicator: It's true. It is raining. It is a ten‐minute drive to the school. But don't overuse this construction. For vivid writing and clear communication, make sure your pronouns have clear antecedents.