How to Avoid Faulty Pronoun References

January 29, 2017 — Leave a comment

Grammar Police BadgeFaulty pronoun references plague the manuscripts of many writers. The wise writer makes certain that each pronoun he writes refers clearly to one noun, known as the antecedent. The antecedent of a pronoun cannot be an adjective, a possessive noun, a clause, or a phrase.

If a pronoun references more than one antecedent, the sentence should be reworded to eliminate confusion. Another option is to eliminate the pronoun.

Error: Pronoun References Multiple Antecedents

Example:

When Bobby saw the clown, he screamed.

In the sentence above, it is not clear who screamed. Did Bobby scream? Did the clown scream?  The reader has to guess.

Example corrected:

Bobby screamed when he saw the clown.

In the reworded sentence, Bobby is clearly the antecedent of he. The vague pronoun reference is eliminated.

Example corrected (alternative):

When Bobby saw the clown, Bobby screamed.

In the example above, the pronoun he is eliminated and replaced with Bobby.

Error: No Antecedent for a Pronoun

Another common writing error occurs when there is no antecedent for a pronoun.

Example:

Mary called the hot line, but they did not answer.

In the example above, they has no noun antecedent to which it can refer. The solution to this problem is to change the pronoun without an antecedent into a noun.

Example corrected:

Mary called the hot line, but the operator did not answer.

In the example above, they is replaced by the operator.

Error: Pronoun References a Clause

Sometimes writers erroneously use a pronoun to refer to a group of words instead of one clear noun antecedent.

Example:

She did not lock the door, which was very irresponsible.

The pronoun which in the example above has no clear antecedent.  A pronoun must always refer to a single, unmistakable antecedent. A pronoun should not be used to refer to an entire clause.

Example corrected:

She did not lock the door. Her behavior was very irresponsible.

The rewritten sentence above makes the meaning clear.

Error: Pronoun References an Entire Sentence

In the example below, a pronoun is used to refer to an entire sentence instead of a single noun antecedent.

Example:

Jill phoned David last night to criticize his driving. This made David very angry.

In the example above, “this” is a vague pronoun.

Example corrected:

Jill phoned David last night to criticize his driving. Jill’s criticism made David very angry.

Error: Pronoun References a Possessive Noun

Some writers like to use a possessive noun as the antecedent for a pronoun; however, a possessive noun functions as an adjective.

Example:

In White’s novel Charlotte’s Web, he tells the story of a pig’s friendship with a spider.

The pronoun reference in the sentence above is faulty, because the possessive noun White’s can not function as the antecedent of he.

Example corrected:

In his novel Charlotte’s Web, White tells the story of a pig’s friendship with a spider.

Error: Hidden Antecedent

An antecedent is hidden if it serves as an adjective instead of a noun.

Example:

When she removed the candy’s wrapper, it turned out to be chocolate.

In the example above, it should refer to the candy, not the wrapper; however, in the sentence above, candy’s functions as an adjective.

Example corrected:

When she unwrapped the candy, it turned out to be chocolate.

Occasional vague pronoun references plague even the best writers. Be careful. Remember that wise writers use beta readers and editors.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

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