Pronoun Antecedents

Antecedent Clarity

Icon of two squares, one solid and one dotted line, connected by two curved arrowsWe've already defined an antecedent as the noun (or phrase) that a pronoun is replacing. The phrase "antecedent clarity" simply means that is should be clear who or what the pronoun is referring to. In other words, readers should be able to understand the sentence the first time they read it—not the third, forth, or tenth. In this page, we'll look at some examples of common mistakes that can cause confusion, as well as ways to fix each sentence.

Let's take a look at our first sentence:

Rafael told Matt to stop eating his cereal.

When you first read this sentence, is it clear if the cereal Rafael's or Matt's? Is it clear when you read the sentence again? Not really, no. Since both Rafael and Matt are singular, third person, and masculine, it's impossible to tell whose cereal is being eaten (at least from this sentence).

How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

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Were those revisions what you expected them to be?

Let's take a look at another example:

Katerina was really excited to try French cuisine on her semester abroad in Europe. They make all sorts of delicious things.

When you read this example, is it apparent who the pronoun they is referring to? You may guess that they is referring to the French—which is probably correct. However, this is not actually stated, which means that there isn't actually an antecedent. Since every pronoun needs an antecedent, the example needs to be revised to include one.

How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

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As you write, keep these two things in mind:

  • Make sure your pronouns always have an antecedent.
  • Make sure that it is clear what their antecedents are.


Practice

Read the following passage, then re-write it using as many pronouns as possible, while still retaining clarity.

Marina and Marina's twin sister Adriana often fought over small things. Marina frequently took Adriana's clothes without asking and never returned them. Adriana always ate the last piece of dessert, even if Mariana had saved it for Mariana. However, Mariana always made sure Adriana knew about the sales at Adriana's favorite stores, and Adriana baked Mariana's favorite cookies at least once a month.

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Antecedent Agreement

Icon of a black hand and white hand shakingAs you write, make sure that you are using the correct pronouns. When a pronoun matches the person and number of its antecedent, we say that it agrees with it antecedent. Let's look at a couple of examples:

  • I hate it when Zacharias tells me what to do. He's so full of himself.
  • The Finnegans are shouting again. I swear you could hear them from across town!


In the first sentence, Zacharias is singular, third person, and masculine. The pronouns he and himself are also singular, third person, and masculine, so they agree. In the second sentence, the Finnegans is plural and third person. The pronoun them is also plural and third person.

When you select your pronoun, you also need to ensure you use the correct case of pronoun. Remember we learned about three cases: subject, object, and possessive. The case of your pronoun should match its role in the sentence. For example, if your pronoun is doing an action, it should be a subject:

  • He runs every morning.
  • I hate it when she does this.


However, when something is being done to your pronoun, it should be an object:

  • Birds have always hated me.
  • My boss wanted to talk to him.
  • Give her the phone and walk away.


Practice

Replace each bolded word with the correct pronoun:

  1. Hannah had always loved working with plants.
  2. People often lost patience with Colin.
  3. Justin was unsure how well Justin and Terry would together.
  4. Alicia and Katie made a formidable team.


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However, things aren't always this straightforward. Let's take a look at some examples where things are a little more confusing.

Person and Number

Some of the trickiest agreements are with indefinite pronouns:

  • Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
  • If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?


As we learned earlier in this outcome, words like every and nobody are singular, and demand singular pronouns. Here are some of the words that fall into this category:

anybody anyone anything each either every
everybody everyone everything neither no one nobody
nothing one somebody someone something
Some of these may feel "more singular" than others, but they all are technically singular. Thus, using "he or she" is correct (while they is incorrect).

  • Anyone going on this hike should plan on being in the canyon for at least seven hours; he or she should prepare accordingly.
  • I know somebody has been throwing his or her trash away in my dumpster, and I want him or her to stop.


However, as you may have noticed, the phrase "he or she" (and its other forms) can often make your sentences clunky. When this happens, it may be best to revise your sentences to have plural antecedents.

Practice

Here's a paragraph that uses "he or she" liberally:

Every writer will experience writer's block at some point in his or her career. He or she will suddenly be unable to move on in his or her work. A lot of people have written about writer's block, presenting different strategies to "beat the block." However, different methods work for different people. Each writer must find the solutions that work best for him or her.

How would you best revise this paragraph? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

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Case

You and I versus You and Me

Some of the most common pronoun mistakes occur with the decision between "you and I" and "you and me."  People will often say things like "You and me should go out for drinks." Or—thinking back on the rule that it should be "you and I"—they will say "Susan assigned the task to both you and I." However, both of these sentences are wrong. Remember that every time you use a pronoun you need to make sure that you're using the correct case.

Let's take a look at the first sentence: "You and me should go out for drinks." Both pronouns are the subject of the sentence, so they should be in subject case: "You and I should go out for drinks."

In the second sentence (Susan assigned the task to both you and I), both pronouns are the object of the sentence, so they should be in object case: "Susan assigned the task to both you and me."

Note: This is the same principle that is behind the who versus whom debate. Who is the subject case of the word, and whom is the object case.

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