The issue I see most often in student writing is the use of a pronoun that does not refer to one specific noun.
What is a Vague Pronoun?
A pronoun can be considered vague if it doesn't clearly refer to a specific person or thing in the sentence (the antecedent). Using demonstrative pronouns, such as ‘it’ or ‘those,’ without a clear antecedent can cause confusion.
To review, a pronoun is a word used to take the place of a noun and should refer to one unmistakable noun preceding it. This noun is called the pronoun’s antecedent. Unfortunately, it is very easy to create a sentence that uses a pronoun without a clear antecedent.
Examples of Vague Pronoun Reference
Take a look at these examples of vague pronoun references:
“After putting the disk in the cabinet, Mabel sold it.”
Did Mabel sell the disk or the cabinet? The pronoun reference is vague here because the pronoun “it” has two antecedents.
“Matt’s brother likes to tell a story about the time he broke mom’s vase.”
Did Matt break the vase, or did his brother? The pronoun reference is vague here because the pronoun “he” has two antecedents.
“The girls didn’t get to see the bands because their bus broke down.”
Did the bands’ bus break down, or did the girls’ bus break down? The pronoun reference is vague here because the pronoun “their” has two antecedents.
How to Fix Vague Pronoun Reference
Any pronoun whose reference is unclear should be replaced by the noun that you intended it to stand for. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader and obscuring the intended meaning of your arguments.
Let’s look at some of the most common vague pronoun errors I see in student writing and how to fix them:
1. Combining First/Second/Third Person
To begin with, any pronoun that switches from the person (first, second, third) already established in a statement should be replaced by a pronoun that maintains consistent person.
“I never ride roller coasters because they make you sick.”
This sentence switches between the first person and the second person pronoun.
“I never ride roller coasters because they make me sick.”
1. Too many antecedents
A pronoun should have only one antecedent (noun) that is clear and unmistakable.
“Edwin told Kenny that Dr. Wilson suspected that he had cheated on the chemistry exam.”
Which “he” is the writer referring to—Edwin, Kenny, or Dr. Wilson?
“Edwin told Kenny that Dr. Wilson suspected that Kenny had cheated on the chemistry exam.”
2. Hidden antecedents
Faulty pronoun reference errors also occur when the pronoun’s antecedent functions as an adjective rather than as a noun. In such cases, the true antecedent is “hidden” from the reader because it has been subordinated to another noun.
“The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of eating it anyway.”
Clearly, 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 as an adjective. Only nouns can be antecedents. To revise, substitute a noun for the pronoun “it.”
“The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of eating candy anyway.”
3. No antecedent at all
Another kind of faulty/vague pronoun reference error occurs when a writer uses a pronoun without supplying the antecedent.
“The witness called the television station, but they didn’t answer.”
In this example, the pronoun “they” has no antecedent to which it can refer. To repair this error, the writer could change the pronoun “they” to a noun.
“The witness called the television station, but not a single reporter answered the phone.”
4. Pronoun used to stand for a group of words
Additionally, watch out for “this” and “which” pronouns. Remember, by definition, pronouns, which take the place of a noun, cannot refer to an idea expressed in an entire sentence or statement; instead, a pronoun must refer back to a specific noun.
“I did not attend my best friend’s birthday party, which was really unsupportive of me.”
The word “which” has no single, clear antecedent. Instead, it refers to the entire clause – “I did not attend my best friend’s birthday party.” Remember that a pronoun must always refer to a single, clear antecedent.
We can repair the above error in two ways:
Replace the pronoun with a noun - “I did not attend my best friend’s birthday party. My actions were really unsupportive.”
Rephrase to eliminate the pronoun - “By not attending my best friend’s birthday party, I was really unsupportive of her.”
5. Pronoun number
The top problem I see is errors in pronoun number. Pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents; this rule matches that of subject-verb agreement. Plural antecedents require plural pronouns, and singular antecedents require singular pronouns.
“Each person should follow their dreams.” Here, “their” is a plural pronoun and “person” is a singular noun.
“Each person should follow his or her dream.” OR “All people should follow their dreams.”
For student help and even more tips and strategies, visit the JWU Writing Coaches.