If the margins of your essay are peppered with reader comments such as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ or ‘Which?’, it could be that you’ve made a common grammatical mistake: an unclear antecedent. An antecedent is an earlier word or group of words to which a pronoun, noun or another word refers. A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun (a person, place or thing).
Don’t worry — this is not going to be one of those grammar posts that make you want to sob into a hankie. We don’t even need fancy grammatical terms to talk about this everyday writing error. Let’s look at some examples.
Short sentences where it is clear what the pronoun is referring to are fine:
The bird (noun/antecedent) preened its (pronoun) feathers.
In this sentence, using the pronoun ‘it’ is OK. We know that ‘it’ refers to the bird (the antecedent).
Fat — which fat?
When the sentence gets longer, we can quickly get into difficulty if it is not clear what the pronoun refers to, especially with pronouns such as ‘it’, ‘there’, ‘they’ and ‘this’. For example:
A key difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is that they tend to be solid at room temperature and come from animals.
At first glance, you might think there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, particularly if you are familiar with the subject. But look again. Which fat is solid at room temperature and comes from animals? Saturated or unsaturated?
Once you see the problem, it’s easy to fix. We just need to clarify by inserting a noun to clear up the confusion.
A key difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is that saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and come from animals.
Now the sentence is clear, but if you don’t like the repetition of ‘saturated fats’, you could rephrase it, for example:
A key feature of saturated fats is that they tend to be solid at room temperature and come from animals, whereas unsaturated fats . . .
There — where?
Now see if you can spot the problem in this example.
Durham is a city people love to visit. Visitors enjoy walking the cobbled streets and going to the cathedral, home of the shrine of St Cuthbert. The number of tourists going there has increased in recent years.
What does there refer to? Durham? The cathedral? The shrine of St Cuthbert? There are three possible antecedents.
Durham (antecedent) is a city people love to visit. Visitors enjoy walking the cobbled streets and going to the cathedral (antecedent), home of the shrine of St Cuthbert (antecedent). The number of tourists visiting there (pronoun) has increased in recent years.
Here, Durham (the intended antecedent) is too far away from its pronoun (there). We could easily fix this sentence by replacing ‘there’ with ‘Durham’ or – to avoid repetition – ‘the city’.
What is ‘it’?
Now let’s consider an example from a student essay. You will see how unclear antecedents can become a problem in your own writing.
The article by Matthews is the most persuasive. It argues that the way dolls represent girls mirrors dominant views about women in society.
In this sentence, ‘it’ can only refer to the article by Matthews. There is no other possible antecedent, so the sentence is OK.
But in this longer version, ‘it’ becomes a problem.
This article explores literary references to dolls in novels by English writers and draws on earlier research by Matthews. It argues that the way dolls represent girls mirrors dominant views about women in society.
Here, ‘it’ could refer to the article by the essay’s author or the earlier research by Matthews. There is room for misinterpretation. You can simply change ‘it’ to the correct name:
This article explores literary references to dolls in novels by English writers and draws on earlier research by Matthews. Matthews argues that the way dolls represent girls mirrors dominant views about women in society.
Check your pronouns
Be on the lookout for unclear antecedents when you are editing your work. A simple way of checking your writing is to look for the pronouns. Pronouns are either:
- personal (I, we, he, she, you, it, they)
- relative (which, who, that, as)
- demonstrative (these, that, this, those)
- interrogative (who, which, what) or
- indefinite (each, all, both, any, somebody).
You can find a full list here. Then ask yourself, what is the pronoun referring to? It might be obvious to you, but will it be clear to your reader? If you find an unclear antecedent, rewrite your sentence by changing the pronoun to a noun — the person or thing you’re referring to. If this creates repetition, rewrite the sentence in a different way to avoid the problem.
I hope you’re now more aware of how to be clear about exactly who or what you are referring to.
When your writing flows, your reader can easily absorb your ideas and understand what you’re trying to communicate.
To raise the quality of your writing, check your verbs. Select verbs that say exactly what you mean and carry the right amount of weight.
Even if you feel safer with the passive voice, consider how you might use the occasional active sentence to liven up your writing.