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Author Topic: Handling Pronouns with Unclear Antecedents  (Read 276 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: June 13, 2017, 10:06:32 AM »

Sometime ago, a prestigious testing organization in the United States had to rescore the test papers of over 500,000 test-takers when it found out that one of its grammar questions could be answered in two ways. The problematic passage in the error identification test was this:

Toni Morrison’s genius enables (A) her to create novels (B) that arise from (C)
and express the injustice African Americans (D) have endured. (E) No error.

The test developer’s intended answer was, of course, “(E) No error,” but someone persuasively countered that “(A) her to create novels” was grammatically wrong and should then be the correct answer. The argument: Although it could be assumed that “her” in choice (A) refers to Toni Morrison herself, some grammar books actually frown on such a construction, pointing out that a pronoun shouldn’t refer to a noun in the possessive case (in this case, “Toni Morrison’s”) when the noun is functioning as a modifier. Choice (A) should therefore be revised as follows to “Morrison to create novels” to make the sentence scrupulously correct: “Toni Morrison’s genius enables Morrison to create novels that arise from and express the injustice African Americans have endured.”


The revision isn’t a very elegant sentence, of course, but the grammar incident that prompted it clearly illustrates the need to avoid using pronouns with unclear or ambiguous antecedents. For admittedly, someone who doesn’t know that Toni Morrison is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—that someone could be, say, a Martian visiting the Earth a century from now—could very well accept Morrison’s literary genius semantically, but would never be sure if the “her” in the sentence was Morrison herself. We can see that the responsibility to be clear about things is the writer’s, not the reader’s.


Errors that stem from such unclear antecedents of pronouns come in three types: unidentified reference, indefinite reference, and ambiguous reference. They thrive on the writer’s assumption—often wrong—that readers will somehow know what is obvious in his or her mind. The antidote for the resulting vagueness, of course, is to give a clear antecedent for each personal pronoun used in a sentence.

Unidentified reference. Habitual use of the pronouns “it,” “they,” “this,” “that,” “them,” and “which” without a clear referent is the most common cause of ambiguity in prose. Let’s examine some examples.

Unidentified:It was clear from the start that she wouldn’t marry me.” Improved with a clear referent:She made me understand from the start that she wouldn’t marry me.”

Unidentified: “At the Rizal Park on Sundays, they upturn their umbrellas and implore the heavens to fill them with blessings.” Improved with clear referents: El Shaddai devotees upturn their umbrellas at the Rizal Park on Sundays and implore the heavens to fill those umbrellas with blessings.”

Unidentified: “I have dealt with so many illogical passages, fractured grammatical constructions, and obscure idioms, but this is absolutely ridiculous.” Improved with clear referent: “I have dealt with so many illogical passages, fractured grammatical constructions, and obscure idioms, but this illogical passage [or grammatical construction or idiom] is absolutely ridiculous.”

Oftentimes we also fall into the trap of using the pronoun “you” to refer to people in general rather than to the person we are addressing. Confusing: “In my town in the old days you had to walk to school several kilometers on foot, or else ride a carabao-drawn sled.” Better and clearer: “In my town in the old days we [or people] had to walk to school several kilometers on foot, or else ride a carabao-drawn sled.” (In literary writing, of course, we may be forgiven for occasionally using the figurative “you” for effect.)


Indefinite reference. Another enemy of clarity is using a pronoun to refer to an idea expressed weakly in another word or phrase. In this case, we have to rework the sentence to make the antecedent clearer or, better yet, supply a clear antecedent noun.

Vague: “Alberto plays arcade games at the malls. It takes up most of his time during school vacations.” Neither the verb “plays” nor the noun phrase “arcade games”—much less “malls”—can be the antecedent of the pronoun “it” in the second sentence. Better and clearer: “Alberto plays arcade games at the malls. Playing them takes up most of his time during school vacations.

Ambiguous reference. When we construct sentences, the pronouns we use may sometimes logically refer to more than one word or noun phrase elsewhere in the sentence. This often happens when a noun or pronoun falls between the pronoun and its proper antecedent. The only solution is to rewrite the sentence.

Ambiguous: “Before putting the old trunk in the storeroom, I emptied it.” (What did I empty: the trunk, the storeroom, or both?) Better and clearer: “I emptied the old trunk before putting it in the storeroom.” Conversely, but also correct: “I emptied the storeroom before putting the old trunk in it.”

Now that we know such problems with pronouns with vague antecedents, we should make it a regular part of our editing routine to avoid them.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 44, Managing Our Pronouns Better, of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge published by Manila times Publishing, © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: June 13, 2017, 10:47:12 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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