Pronoun reference is an important grammatical concept. Pronouns always refer to nouns or to other pronouns. Without pronouns, we would have to monotonously repeat nouns all the time.
The pronouns in the following sentences are in bold type:
When I met Jan, she was walking her dog, which she had just bought.
Albert’s cousin, who lives in Florida, loves to wrestle alligators.
That is not something we would ever think of doing.
The noun or pronoun that a pronoun refers to is called its antecedent.
Extremely Important Rule: Every pronoun must have one unmistakable antecedent.
An unclear antecedent is a mistake called faulty pronoun reference.
Here are some examples of faulty pronoun reference:
- When Colbart hit his head with the bottle, he broke it.
What is the antecedent of the pronoun “it,” the bottle or Colbart’s head?
The sentence has to be rewritten, stating clearly what got broken:
Colbart’s head: Colbart broke his head when he hit it with the bottle.
The bottle: Colbart broke the bottle when he hit his head with it.
- Colbart and Jadwiga told Bert and Abigail that they couldn’t come to the party.
What is the antecedent of the pronoun “they?”—Colbart and Jadwiga, or Bert and Abigail?
The sentence has to be revised to make the meaning clear:
Colbart and Jadwiga can’t go to the party: Colbart and Jadwiga said to Bert and Abigail, “We cannot come to the party.”
Bert and Abigail can’t go to the party: Although Bert and Abigail wanted to go to the party, Colbart and Jadwiga told them they couldn’t.
- In the end Colbart and Jadwiga didn’t go to the party, which was stupid.
Is the antecedent of the pronoun “which” the fact that Colbart and Jadwiga didn’t go to the party (the entire clause) or the party itself?
The sentence has to be revised:
The party itself was stupid: Colbart and Jadwiga didn’t go to the stupid party.
Not going to the party was stupid: It was stupid of Colbart and Jadwiga not to go to the party.
- The cat’s owners gave it away.
Although the pronoun “it” clearly refers to the cat, the noun “cat” doesn’t appear in the sentence. A possessive noun (like “cat’s”) can’t be the antecedent of a pronoun. This may seem like a very picky piece of grammar, but once you know it, you can feel smugly superior to those who don’t.
The sentence has to be revised:
Don’t use the pronoun: The cat’s owners gave the cat away.
Name the owners: Samantha and Bruno gave their cat away.
Revise the following sentences to correct faulty pronoun references, and compare your revisions with mine. The pronouns are in bold type.
- When Marg visited Georgia, she had a bad cold.
- The contract’s convoluted language will make it a hard sell.
- Geraldine confessed to the crime and began to cry. This made Graham angry.
- We banged on Bart’s door, but he wouldn’t open it.
- Colbart and Murray use stupid pick-up lines that rarely work because women can’t stand them.
- Georgia had a bad cold when Marg visited her. Marg had a bad cold when she visited Georgia.
- The contract will be a hard sell because of its convoluted language.
- Geraldine confessed to the crime and began to cry. Her confession (or her crying) made Graham angry.
- Even though we banged on his door, Bart wouldn’t open it.
- Colbart and Murray get few dates because women can’t stand their stupid pick-up lines.