OER Writing Resources

 

OER Writing Resources

PET

Agreement in Number Part II

Vague or No Antecedent—Lesson

In this lesson you will learn to recognize pronouns that do not have a clear antecedent and those that have no antecedent at all.

Rule

A pronoun requires a clear antecedent.

Correct Examples

  • Fernando likes football more than Emile does.
  • Jack is the top student in his class.
  • Time magazine recently reported a fourteen-day world food supply.

Incorrect Examples

  • Fernando and Emile like football, but he likes it more.
  • In Jack’s class, he is the top student.
  • Time magazine recently reported that it has a fourteen-day supply of food.

Rule

Avoid vague use of it, they, and you in formal writing.

Correct Examples

  • Most people believe that there was no energy crisis in the 70s.
  • People can succeed if they try.
  • It is raining today.

Incorrect Examples

  • They say that there was no energy crisis in the 70s.
  • You can succeed if you try.
  • The weather is raining today. (“It is raining today” is an idiom.)

Consider the following:

  1. Bob is a good fellow, but he would be an unsuitable class president.
  2. It was cold yesterday, and it is raining today.
  3. Pronouns should be used correctly: this is a fundamental principle of good writing.
  1. He clearly refers to Bob.
  2. The first it refers—perhaps vaguely but not ambiguously—to the weather; the second it does not refer to anything in particular, but the meaning is clear because the phrase is an idiom.
  3. This refers to the meaning of the first clause, but not to a particular noun in it.

One of the most common causes of confusion in writing is the unclear use of pronouns. We misuse pronouns by referring to things and people we have never directly mentioned, to things and people mentioned too far back to be easily recalled by the reader, to too many things, or to nothing at all.

A common pronoun error involves the use of one pronoun that could refer to more than one noun in the sentence. For example, “Holly and Jackie live near the mall, but she lives closer.” There is no way to tell which of the girls lives closer to the mall. The only correct way is to repeat one of the nouns or reword the sentence: “Holly lives closer to the mall than Jackie does.” OR “Holly and Jackie live near the mall, but Holly lives closer.”

A pronoun must have one clear antecedent. Sometimes we use a pronoun to refer to something that we think we have mentioned, but which, in fact, we have not. For example, “In Penpusher’s essay “How to Keep Fingers Fit,” he talks about the health benefits of writing.” The author of this sentence thinks he has mentioned Penpusher and that he can use he to refer to Penpusher.

A pronoun such as he must refer to a noun or pronoun. In the example, he is not mentioned, nor is Penpusher, but Penpusher’s essay is. The sentence must be reworded: “In his essay “How to Keep Fingers Fit,” Penpusher talks about the health benefits of writing.”

Sometimes there are too many other words between the pronoun and the word it refers to: “The president and the vice president have final signing authority on all contracts but not on purchases. He can veto it, but often listens to him. They usually agree on them, but he is very stubborn.”

Obviously, the sentences need to be revised: “The president and the vice president have final signing authority on all contracts but not on purchases. The president can veto any decision, but he often listens to the vice president. They usually agree, but the vice president is very stubborn.”

People often say things like this: “They say there may be a cure for cancer in the next decade.” Who are “they”? Sometimes we use they like this in writing. The sentence is better this way: “Researchers say there may be a cure for cancer in the next decade.”

Another faulty use of pronouns is in phrases like the following: “It said on the news that there is more trouble in Afghanistan.” Who or what is “it”? The sentence needs to be revised: “The news reported more trouble in Afghanistan.”

Sometimes the same pronoun is used several times, each time to refer to something different: “She told her husband she was not happy with it and had decided to move it. It was a major effort, but she was finally satisfied that it looked better than before.”

There are some common, idiomatic phrases such as “It is nice today” where it does not refer to anything in particular, but most of the time it should have a clear antecedent. Generally, your writing is clearer if the pronouns clearly refer to something. Make the pronoun reference clear by putting in the nouns that make it clear: “She told her husband she was not happy with the arrangement and had decided to move the furniture. Rearranging was a major effort, but she was finally satisfied that the room looked better than before.”

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