Using Pronouns Correctly: Pronoun Reference
A pronoun must refer clearly to its antecedent. Because a pronoun is a substitute word, it can express meaning clearly and definitely only if its antecedent is easily identified.
In some sentence constructions, gender and number make the reference clear.
Thomas and Jane discussed his absences and her good attendance. (gender)
If the three older boys in the club carry out those plans, it will break up. (number)
Word order can also make the reference clear. A pronoun should be placed as close to its antecedent as possible. An antecedent is preferably the noun or indefinite pronoun just before the pronoun. The following are additional guidelines for making pronoun references clear in your writing.
● When using a pronoun to refer to a general idea, make sure that the reference is clear. The pronouns used frequently in this way are this, that, which, and it. The best solution may be to recast the sentence to omit the pronoun in question.
Unclear: She whistled the same tune, which irritated me.
Clear: She whistled the same tune, a habit that irritated me. Recast: Her whistling the same tune irritated me.
Unclear: They treated him like a criminal, and that angered him. Clear: They treated him like a criminal, and that kind of treatment angered him. Recast: Their treating him like a criminal angered him.
● Confusion caused by vague reference of a pronoun to its antecedent can be eliminated by repeating the word intended as the antecedent or by using a synonym for the word. Confusion may also be eliminated by rephrasing the sentence.
Unclear: You could defend his position, but it would be weak. Clear: You could defend his position, but your defense would be weak. Recast: Your defense of his position would be weak.
● Avoid ambiguous reference. The following sentences illustrate the kind of confusion that results from structuring sentences with more than one possible antecedent for the...
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