A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun (e.g., cat, friend) or a noun phrase (e.g., the owner of the cat, my longtime friend). For example, in the sentence “Carlo poured a cup of coffee and sipped it slowly,” the pronoun it replaces something previously mentioned, a cup of coffee.
The noun or noun phrase that a pronoun refers to is called a referent. When the referent appears before the pronoun, the referent is called the pronoun’s antecedent (the prefix ante- means “before”). In the sentence “Carlo poured a cup of coffee and sipped it slowly,” a cup of coffee is the antecedent for the pronoun it.
In some cases the referent for a pronoun is understood in context rather than explicitly named: for example, if you write, “it was cloudy,” a reader understands that it refers to the weather, which doesn’t need to be named. In most cases, however, you will want to ensure that referents are clear and unambiguous, so that readers do not puzzle over your meaning and can sail more smoothly through your prose.
Let’s look at three common errors that writers make with regard to pronouns and referents: first, pronouns that have more than one possible antecedent; second, pronouns with missing referents; and third, ambiguous pronouns.
A pronoun with more than one possible antecedent can result in ambiguity. Consider this example:
A cat will generally not attack another cat unless it is frightened.
If you’re familiar with cat behavior, you might assume that a frightened cat is more likely to attack another cat, not that cats generally attack frightened cats. But for clarity, you might revise like this:
When a cat is frightened it is more likely to attack another cat.
Here’s another example: in the following sentence, whose children are eating too much candy, Felix’s or Oscar’s?
Felix thinks that Oscar gives his children too much candy.
Revise the sentence to clarify:
Felix thinks that his children get too much candy from Oscar.
Some cases with multiple antecedents are more complex. Can you name all the possible antecedents for the pronoun them that comes at the end of the following passage?
My deadlines are piling up. The supervisor at my job needs the reports I haven’t finished, and I’m late on some assignments for my media studies course. On top of that, applications for summer internships are due soon. I’ll have to cancel my weekend plans to write them.
The antecedents for the plural pronoun them are deadlines, reports, assignments, applications, internships, and plans. Is it clear what them refers to? While a reader might be able to rule out the antecedents that don’t fit the logic of the sentence (deadlines, internships, and plans), the various possible antecedents render the meaning ambiguous. The writer should revise for clarity, replacing the pronoun with a noun:
My deadlines are piling up. The supervisor at my job needs the reports I haven’t finished, and I’m late on some assignments for my media studies course. On top of that, applications for summer internships are due soon. I’ll have to cancel my weekend plans to write the reports.
A pronoun that is missing a referent is a common error that can usually be easily fixed. Consider the following example:
Las Vegas is a popular wedding spot because they can be performed with no waiting period in any number of iconic venues.
The pronoun they has no grammatical antecedent in the sentence. A reader might surmise that they refers to weddings, but the sentence uses the singular wedding as a modifier for spot. For clarity, you might revise as follows:
Las Vegas is a popular spot for weddings because they can be performed with no waiting period in any number of iconic venues.
A pronoun whose antecedent is a possessive noun represents another instance of a pronoun lacking a referent.
In Adrienne Rich’s poetry she explores issues of identity and sexuality.
There is no true antecedent for the pronoun she, because Adrienne Rich’s is a possessive noun that modifies poetry. While readers are likely to recognize that she refers to Rich, you might revise as follows for clarity:
In her poetry Adrienne Rich explores issues of identity and sexuality.
Finally, the referent for a pronoun may be ambiguous, as in the following example, in which the pronoun her comes before, not after, its referent:
It wasn’t until her absence from chemistry lab that Kelsey knew that Jayda had been hospitalized.
In the sentence above, her absence is meant to refer not to Kelsey’s absence but to Jayda’s. Here’s one way to revise for clarity:
It wasn’t until Jayda’s absence from chemistry lab that Kelsey knew that her classmate had been hospitalized.
In sum, to make your prose more readable, scrutinize the pronouns you use and ensure that their referents are correct and unambiguous.