Earlier this week, I discussed how to identify and correct vague pronoun references in your writing. Now that we’ve explored that, let’s look at some of the most common vague pronoun errors I see in student writing:
1. Too many antecedents
A pronoun should have only one antecedent (noun) that is clear and unmistakable, as mentioned in the previous post.
Incorrect: “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?
Correct: “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.
Incorrect: “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.”
Correct: “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.
Incorrect: “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.
Correct: “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.
Incorrect: “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.
Incorrect: “Each person should follow their dreams.” Here, “their” is a plural pronoun and “person” is a singular noun.
Correct: “Each person should follow his or her dream.” OR “All people should follow their dreams.”
For student help and even more tips and strategies, please visit my Student Writing Support website.
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