Tip 4: Confusing Pronouns: Antecedent Agreement, Vague or Ambiguous Pronoun Reference
A pronoun takes the place of a noun. An antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause
to which a pronoun refers.
In the following example, the antecedent is in bold and the pronoun is italicized.
- The teacher forgot her book.
Here her is the pronoun, and teacher is the antecedent.
Checking for Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
Pronouns and antecedents agree in person—first ( I, we), second (you), or third (he, she, it, they.) They also agree in gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and number (singular or plural). Errors in person and gender are rare, so they won’t be discussed here. Most pronoun-antecedent agreement errors have to do with number.
If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun should be singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun should be plural.
- Pronoun-antecedent agreement error example: The dogs tugged on its leash.
- Correct: The dogs tugged on their leashes.
Only in the second sentence does the pronoun (their) agree with the antecedent (dogs). (Both are plural.)
Except for careless mistakes or typos, students rarely make the kind of error like the one described above. In the next section, we’ll look at the pronoun-antecedent agreement situations that cause students problems.
The Most Problematic Pronoun-Antecedent Situation
Most agreement problems arise with singular indefinite nouns (person, student, individual, soldier) and indefinite pronouns (someone, each, anybody, neither). These words are “indefinite” because they do not definitely refer to males, nor do they definitely refer to females. Because they are singular, they are often followed by the singular pronouns “his or her,” “his or hers,” or “him or her,” depending on context. Rules are changing, however. Gender neutral plural pronouns such as they, their, or themselves may be a better choice to avoid controversy and stay focused on the message. Plural pronouns are generally accepted even when they refer to singular antecedents.
The singular THEY
Be careful to avoid sexist language when using singular pronouns.
Help readers to concentrate on your message instead of your use of singular pronouns. Years ago, a masculine pronoun (his, he) was acceptable when the gender of a noun could refer to either a man or a woman, but that practice became offensive. Don’t suggest, for example, that all teachers are women or all scientists are men. The singular they (them/their/theirs/themselves) is an emerging trend to avoid labeling people as either masculine or feminine when they may identify as gender fluid or nonbinary, for example. Learn to navigate around this pesky problem with English pronouns.
Each doctor should bring his registration papers to the meeting.
(All doctors are not men.)
- Doctors should bring their registration papers to the meeting.
- Each doctor should bring registration papers to the meeting.
- Each doctor should bring their registration papers to the meeting.
The last option, which mismatches a singular noun (doctor) and a plural pronoun (their), is acceptable and avoids awkward or sexist communication. Be careful, though, when writing some
papers, such as formal reports, papers for publication, and employment messages: Know your audience. Consider the first or second option instead.
Plural pronouns are neither masculine nor feminine in English, so changing the noun to a plural form is usually a good option.
His or her, his/her options are often awkward, and they can be offensive if a person wants to be gender fluid or gender neutral.
Vague or Ambiguous Pronoun Reference
Remember that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. An ambiguous pronoun reference occurs when it’s not clear what noun a pronoun refers to, as in this example:
- Ambiguous pronoun reference example: The teacher gave the student her notes. (Does the pronoun her refer to the noun teacher or the noun student?)
A vague pronoun reference occurs in one of two situations: (1) when a pronoun like it, this, that, and which refers to an implied concept or word rather than to a specific, preceding noun; and (2) when a pronoun is used to refer to the object of a prepositional phrase.
- Example of (1) above: She gave the Red Cross all her money, and this is the reason why she declared bankruptcy. (Here, this refers to an implied concept that could be phrased something like “the fact that she gave the Red Cross all her money” rather to a specific noun.)
- Better: The fact that she gave the Red Cross all her money explains why she declared bankruptcy.
- Another example of (1) above: Michelle is a shy person, but she keeps it hidden. (Here, it refers to “shyness,” and although the concept of shyness is implied in this sentence, the word shyness does not appear in it. Thus the pronoun is referring to a noun that isn’t there. That’s not good.)
- Better: Michelle is a shy person, but she keeps her shyness hidden.
- A final example of (1) above: Judy Cohen’s error brought her a lawsuit.
(Here, her must refer to Judy Cohen. However, although the concept that a person named Judy Cohen exists is implied in this sentence, the actual words Judy Cohen do not appear before the pronoun. Cohen’s appears, but not Cohen. Thus, again, the pronoun is referring to a noun that isn’t there.)
- Better: Her error brought Judy Cohen a lawsuit.
- Example of (2) above: In the average television drama, it presents a false picture of life. (Here, it refers to drama, and drama is the object of the prepositional phrase “in the average television drama.”)
- Better: The average television drama presents a false picture of life.
- Another example of (2) above: In the directions, they said that the small box should be opened last. (Here, they refers to directions, and directions is the object of the prepositional phrase “in the directions.”)
- Better: The directions say that the small box should be opened last.