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Pronoun Reference: Clear Pronouns

Every pronoun must have a clearly stated or clearly implied antecedent (antecedent is the word that the pronoun refers to or replaces).

For example, the pronoun I refers to the writer of a statement, and the antecedent is clearly implied. However, the pronoun you may not have a precise antecedent (except the reader of a personal document) and must often be replaced by a noun that identifies the audience or the class of people under discussion (for example, citizens or students). Avoid you unless you are addressing a particular audience or giving directions.

Some sentences are structured in such a way that pronouns are unclear; lacking clear or appropriate antecedents, such pronouns must be replaced by clear words and phrases. In addition, some pronouns are separated from their antecedents; in such cases, repetition of the antecedent provides necessary clarity.

1. A pronoun cannot usually represent an entire thought or a group of words. Be especially careful to avoid a broad or vague this or which reference.

       
    Example: Pat blamed the teacher for the unclear lesson, which was foolish.

    What was foolish? Blaming the teacher? The lesson? The lesson's being unclear? For clarity, the sentence should read:

    Foolishly, Pat blamed the teacher for the unclear lesson. Pat was foolish to blame the teacher for the unclear lesson. Confused about the lesson, Pat was foolish to blame the teacher.

       
    Example: My parents decided to move to Florida after retirement which upset me.My parents' decision upset me. My parents' move to Florida upset me
 

2. Do not use a pronoun to replace one among several possible antecedents.

    Example: Jane took Joan and her mother shopping.

    Whose mother did Jane take, Jane's or Joan's? The sentence should read:

    Jane took Joan and Joan's mother shopping. Jane took her mother and Joan shopping. Jane's mother went shopping with Jane and Joan.
     

3. Do not use a pronoun to refer to an unidentified or vague antecedent. Unnamed antecedents and antecedents in previous paragraphs are unacceptable.

    Example: Kelly dropped out of school because they emphasized sports too much.

    Who are they? The sentence could be revised as follows:

    Kelly dropped out of school because the teachers emphasized sports too much. Kelly dropped out of school because the students emphasized sports too much.

    Example: It was a shame that it couldn't find the road leading home.

    It was a shame that the puppy couldn't find the road leading home.

Comments: writcent@tcc.edu
Last revision: August 4, 2003
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