Self-Teaching Unit:

Faulty Pronoun Reference

2000, 1999, 1987 Margaret L. Benner   All rights reserved.

Every pronoun you write should refer clearly and unmistakably to ONE PARTICULAR noun.  We call this  noun  the antecedent.

Look at the following example:

                     

            The pronoun "them" clearly refers to the noun disks.

             Disks is the antecedent for the pronoun them.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to create a sentence that uses a pronoun WITHOUT a clear, unmistakable noun antecedent.

    Look at this example:

      

     The pronoun it does not have a clear noun antecedent.

As a result, the reader cannot know for sure whether Kara sold the disk or the cabinet.  The pronoun reference is faulty here because the pronoun it has two antecedents.

Such errors, called FAULTY or VAGUE  PRONOUN REFERENCE, can confuse readers and obscure the intended meaning.

This teaching module will show you three major pronoun reference errors and ways to correct them so that you can avoid pronoun reference errors in your writing.  

ERROR #1:  TOO MANY ANTECEDENTS                     

A pronoun should have only one antecedent (the noun it refers to).

That antecedent must be clear and unmistakable.

    Look at this sentence.

      

Anyone who reads this sentence would not know which item was to be fixed.

Does it refer to the radio or the car?    The answer is unclear.

In the above example, faulty pronoun reference occurs because the pronoun it has two possible noun antecedents:  radio and car.

    You can repair this error by substituting a noun for the pronoun.

       

                                             or

          


     Here is another example of faulty pronoun reference.

      

Most likely, them refers to peanuts since it is highly unlikely that the writer of this sentence intends to pack away the fans.

However, since fans could be the antecedent for them, the reference is not entirely clear.  The pronoun reference in this sentence is faulty.

You can repair this error in at least two ways.

HOW TO REPAIR                                                       

    1.  As with the first sentence, you can replace the pronoun them with a noun.

        

    2.  You can also repair this error by rephrasing the sentence.

          

    Here is another example of faulty pronoun reference.

          

The pronoun reference is unclear:  Who will get the bonus -- the supervisors or the workers?  They could refer to either group.

    EXAMPLE OF FAULTY PRONOUN REFERENCE (continued)

         

 You can best fix this error by rephrasing the sentence.

     Revision #1 (gives the bonus to the workers)

     

     Revision #2 (gives the bonus to the workers)

      

        Rephrasing the sentence has made the meaning clear.

Link to Exercise 1

ERROR #2:  HIDDEN ANTECEDENTS                           

Faulty / vague pronoun reference errors also occur when the pronoun's antecedent functions as an adjective rather than a noun.

In such cases, the true antecedent is "hidden" or obscured from the reader because it has been subordinated to another noun.

Thus, we call this kind of faulty antecedent a hidden antecedent.

      Look at this sentence.

               

The reader of this sentence might think that the dish was being eaten because dish appears to be the antecedent for the pronoun it.

Obviously, people do not eat dishes.  What this writer means to say is, "We were tired of eating CANDY."

However, candy cannot be the antecedent for it because candy, situated in front of the noun dish, is acting like an adjective.  Only nouns can be antecedents.

    You can repair this error by substituting the appropriate noun for the pronoun it.

               

ERROR:  HIDDEN ANTECEDENT  (continued)

            

Obviously, she refers to Mary since a house would NOT be able to answer a phone.

However, Mary's modifies house -- Mary's is a hidden antecedent and, thus, is not clear.

    To repair this error, we can change the pronoun she to a noun.

             

    Another way to repair this error is to remove the hidden antecedent.

                   

    Still another way to repair this error is to rephrase the sentence.

        

    (The antecedent for her is clearly Mary.)  

Link to Exercise 2

ERROR #3: NO ANTECEDENT AT ALL                         

Another kind of faulty/vague pronoun reference problem occurs when writers use a pronoun without giving the pronoun any antecedent at all.

    Look at the following example.

             

    Question:  Who are "they" mentioned in the sentence?

    Answer:    Since "they" has no antecedent in the sentence, the identity is unknown.

    In this example, the pronoun they has NO noun antecedent to which it can refer.

We can repair this error by changing the pronoun without an antecedent into a noun.

    Example

         

Another way to repair this error is to create an antecedent -- one that is clear and unmistakable.

    Example

             

    Here is another example of a pronoun without any antecedent at all. 

                   

In this example, the pronoun it has no antecedent to which it can refer. 

The reader knows that Ms. Smith is "wealthy," but it cannot refer to wealthy because wealthy is NOT a noun.

There are at least two ways to repair this error.

    1.      Replace the pronoun with a noun.

   

With a noun (money) in the place of the pronoun (it), no antecedent is needed.

     2. Rephrase the sentence so that the first part contains an antecedent for the pronoun it.

             

   Now the pronoun it has a clear noun antecedent:  money.

    Here is another example of a pronoun without any antecedent at all.

               

It, which appears at the very beginning of the sentence, has no noun antecedent at all.  In addition, the construction It says in the paper is unnecessarily wordy.

 We can repair this error by writing a more DIRECT version of  "It says in the paper."

     Example

               

Another way to repair the "It says in the paper" error is to rephrase this part of the sentence.

    Example

                     

Both methods of repairing this faulty/vague pronoun error eliminate the pronoun and, thus, eliminate the need for an antecedent.

Below, another example shows how this error in pronoun reference occurs when a pronoun is used to stand for (refer to) a whole group of words INSTEAD OF one clear noun antecedent.

    Look at this example.

                     

The pronoun which has no single, clear antecedent.

Instead, it refers to the entire clause  -- "I did not attend the rally."

As you know, however, a pronoun must always refer to a single, clear, unmistakable NOUN ANTECEDENT.

Thus, the reference in the above example is incorrect.

We can repair this error in at least two ways.

     1.  Replace the pronoun which with a noun.

             

                 Now no antecedent is needed since no pronoun is used.

     2.  Rephrase the sentence to eliminate the pronoun.

               

                                                            OR

           

                                                            OR

            

                                                             OR

           

Here is another example of faulty pronoun reference where a pronoun is asked to refer to a whole group of words instead of a clear, single noun antecedent.

         

The problem pronoun here is This.  Its antecedent is the entire preceding sentence.

The reader cannot be sure whether Howard is very angry because:

1.      Meg telephoned,

2.      Meg telephoned yesterday,

OR

3.      Meg had not attended the meeting the day before.

There are at least two ways to repair this error and create a clear antecedent for this :

1.      Replace the pronoun (this) with a noun.

              

 In the above revisions, no antecedent is needed since no pronoun is used.

         2.      To repair the faulty pronoun reference (this) rephrase the sentence to eliminate the pronoun.

            

                                                                         OR

            

****  Watch out for "this" and "which" pronouns.  Often they are used incorrectly and  

        create faulty or vague pronoun reference problems.****

Link to Exercise 3

You have now reached the end of this self-teaching unit.  To see how well you have learned the methods for recognizing and repairing pronoun reference errors, complete the POST TEST.

Link to Post Test