Pronouns—Grammatical Clarity in Pronoun References

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A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun, such as he, it, they, who, that, these, and which. The noun that it substitutes for is called the antecedent. In order for pronouns to be effective, it must be clear to readers which noun a pronoun is referring to. Therefore, pronouns should refer to a single, declared, nearby antecedent.

Single Antecedent

Pronouns should refer to a single antecedent in order to avoid ambiguity.

Not:

Dan asked Matt when we would be by to visit him.

Our neighbors removed the dishes from the tables before they washed them.

To avoid ambiguity, restate the original noun, or rewrite the sentence so that the pronoun can refer to only one noun.

But:

Dan asked Matt when we would be by to visit him and see their new home.

Our neighbors removed the dishes from the tables before they washed the tables.

Declared Antecedent

Pronouns should refer to a declared antecedent, rather than an implied one. In addition, to ensure clarity, pronouns should refer to a specific noun or other pronoun.

For example, modifiers, such as possessives, can not be used as antecedents. Such modifying pronouns may strongly imply the noun being referred to, but they should not substitute for it.

Not:

In Michener’s works, he offers compelling descriptions of people and places.

In the President’s speech, he outlined his proposal for cutting taxes.

But:

In his works, Michener offers compelling descriptions of people and places.

In his speech, the President outlined his proposal for cutting taxes.

Nor should you use a pronoun to refer to a noun that is merely implied by some other word or phrase.

Not:

My cousin advocates home ownership for everyone, but he doesn’t own one.

Doris despises the foster care system, though she has never been one.

But:

My cousin advocates home ownership for everyone, but he doesn’t own a home.

Doris despises the foster care system, though she has never been a foster child or a foster parent.

Also, don’t use the words it, this, that, or which to refer to a previous phrase or sentence unless you are certain that the meaning will be clear.

Not:

My parents decided not to go on their trip because my sister got sick, which is not good.

Sue loves that she doesn’t have such a strict schedule at her new job. It makes her very happy.

When the meaning might be unclear, either replace the pronoun with a noun or else add an antecedent to which the pronoun clearly refers.

But:

My parents decided not to go on their trip because my sister got sick; it is not good that she is ill.

Sue loves that she doesn’t have such a strict schedule at her new job. The new position makes her very happy.

When a pronoun clearly refers to an entire clause or sentence, however, it is acceptable to leave it as is.

Example:

An uncritical eye, a listening ear, a discerning heart—that is the quality of true friendship.

Nevertheless, even if you are reasonably sure the meaning will not be misunderstood, it is never wrong to include an antecedent.

Finally, don’t use the word it in the same sentence as both a pronoun and an expletive (that is, a word or phrase that is included in a sentence but does not really add any meaning to it). For clarity, rewrite the sentence so that it is not used in both contexts.

Not:

It seems that it is difficult to find a job in this town.

It states in this health guide that it is necessary to exercise five days a week.

But:

It seems difficult to find a job in this town.

This health guide states that it is necessary to exercise five days a week.

Nearby Antecedent

Pronouns should be close enough to the antecedents they refer to avoid misunderstanding, ambiguity, or awkward constructions.

Not:

The manager carried a pen in his briefcase that his son had given him.

Every day he makes calls to the supervisor he doesn’t like.

But:

The manager carried in his briefcase a pen that his son had given him.

Every day he makes calls that he doesn’t like to the supervisor.

Even when there is only one possible noun or pronoun to which the pronoun could refer, the text could still be unclear or awkward if the antecedent is too far removed from the noun or pronoun it refers to. When in doubt, simply restate the noun or pronoun.

Not:

The conference last year, where I met our director, was one of the best that I have ever been to. She is originally from Florida, but she moved to San Diego two years ago.

But:

The conference last year, where I met our director, was one of the best that I have ever been to. Our director is originally from Florida, but she moved to San Diego two years ago.

Indefinite Use of It, They, and You

In most business and formal writing, it should not be used as an indefinite pronoun in such phrases as “In the report it says that” or “On the news it said that.” Such constructions are vague and needlessly wordy. Instead, begin directly with the subject of the sentence.

Not:

In the article it said that the main cause of skin cancer was direct and prolonged exposure to the sun.

But:

The article said that the main cause of skin cancer is direct and prolonged exposure to the sun.

Similarly, do not use the pronoun they to refer to people who have not been specifically mentioned. Rather, they should always refer to a specific antecedent.

Not:

In the last six months they have turned this town into a small metropolis.

They have made my life miserable with their constant delays and interruptions.

But:

In the last six months the three big construction companies have turned this town into a small metropolis.

The contractors and engineers have made my life miserable with their constant delays and interruptions.

In addition, the use of the word you should be reserved for occasions when the writer is addressing the reader directly, such as when giving instructions. The indefinite you, on the other hand, is inappropriate in formal writing.

Not:

The handbook states that you should immediately report any incidents to the HR department.

Upon arriving for your first day of work, you should report directly to your immediate supervisor.

But:

The handbook suggests that employees should immediately report any incidents to the HR department.

Upon arriving for their first day of work, new hires should report directly to their immediate supervisor.

For more information, read the article “Indefinite Pronouns.”

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