Remember that pronouns replace nouns. However, when using pronouns you must be clear which noun you are replacing with a pronoun. For instance, in a sentence When I went to see my friends Henry and Ricardo play football, he scored three touchdowns, it is unclear who the he in the sentence is. Did Henry or Ricardo score three touchdowns? We don’t know.
Pronouns are ambiguous when they could refer to two possible antecedents.
- When Fabiola smacked her hand on the window, it broke.
- Did Fabiola break her hand or the window? We don’t know.
- Fabiola shattered the window with her hand.
- Javier told Seo-Jun that he had six months to live.
- Wait, who is dying? We definitely need clarity here.
- Javier told Seo-Jun, “I only have six months left to live.”
Pronouns can also become unclear if the pronoun is too far from the original antecedent.
- When my graduate advisor told me was moving to another school, I was devastated. He told me that he would keep up with my progress from afar and continue to be my advisor. Nine months later, he had almost completely vanished. I continued to work without him. Nonetheless, I tried to contact him again and again. He did not return my e-mails.
- By the last sentence, “he” is too far from the word that it is trying to replace. You could simply replace “he” with graduate advisor or replace “he” with his proper name.
Pronouns must refer to specific words, not implied antecedents
A pronoun should replace a specific noun, not a word that is implied but is not actually present in the sentence.
- In-N-Out Burger has a secret menu. They can make it almost any way you like.
- The word “it” probably refers to a hamburger, implied by the name of the restaurant, but the word hamburger did not appear in the sentence.
- In-N-Out Burger has a secret menu. They can make a hamburger almost any way you like.
- In Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, it discusses the effects of the Internet on the human brain.
- What is the “it” in this sentence? Presumably it is the The Shallows, but how can the book be within itself.
- Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows discusses the effects of the Internet on the human brain.
Possessives cannot serve as antecedents for pronouns.
- In Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth, he argues that fake news is the result of a fractured media market.
- He probably refers to Lee McIntyre but “Lee McIntyre” hasn’t appeared in the sentence yet. So far, all we have seen is “Lee McIntyre’s.” Using the possessive form of an author’s name can lead to problems in a sentence. The pronoun he cannot logically refer to the possessive modifier.
- In Post-Truth, Lee McIntyre argues that fake news is the result of a fractured media market.
Revise the sentence to eliminate issues with pronoun-antecedent agreement
- Every instructor must ensure that they have a clear grading scale to ensure that everyone is treated fairly.
- Arlete and Agatha are coming over. She is my best friend.
- In the novel, it describes a dystopian landscape.
- Bianca has my laptop and my power cord. I really wish she would give it back.
- Jia-Yi lent her leather jacket to someone who allowed their boyfriend to use it.