Unclear Antecedent

An antecedent is the word or group of words to which a pronoun refers.

For example:

The pitcher struck out 12 batters because she had a deceptive riseball.
(“She” refers to “the pitcher”, so “she” is the pronoun and “the pitcher” is the antecedent.)

The two friends are inseparable; they go everywhere together.
(“They” refers to “The two friends”, so “they” is the pronoun and “the two friends” is the antecedent.)

In both of the above answers, the antecedent is clear.  Problems arise when the antecedent of a pronoun is not clear.

Unclear Antecedent Examples

We don’t like to go to the zoo because they charge too much money.
(Who are “they”?  The polar bears?  The owners?  The guys who stand in front of the monkey cage blocking everyone’s view unless you pay them off?  We don’t know.)

The politicians all delivered impassioned speeches asking people to vote for them in the upcoming election, but they appeared apathetic and bored.
(Does “they” refer to the politicians or to the people listening?  We don’t know.)

Fixes

Unclear antecedents can be fixed simply by being specific about what you’re referring to.

We don’t like to go to the zoo because they charge too much money.
We’ll assume that the writer doesn’t like to go to zoo because the admission cost is too high.  Here are a few options for correcting the sentence simply by removing the unclear pronoun:
We don’t like to go to the zoo because the tickets cost too much money.
We don’t like to go to the zoo because the owners raised the price last year.

Now, let’s look at our other sentence:
The politicians all delivered impassioned speeches asking people to vote for them in the upcoming election, but they appeared apathetic and bored.
We’ll assume that, since the politicians are “impassioned”, it’s the people listening who are bored.  Again, we’ll correct the sentence by replacing the pronoun with a specific reference to the people we’re talking about:
The politicians all delivered impassioned speeches asking people to vote for them in the upcoming election, but the audience appeared apathetic and bored.

Don’t use pronouns without antecedents.

Here are some examples of sentences that use pronouns without antecedents:

It was hot outside.
It is interesting that the protagonists in the two stories are so similar.
This is the key difference between the two characters.
That is upsetting.

Notice how all of these sentences use a “to be” verb after to “it”, “this,” or “that.”  In additional to being unclear, these sentences are boring.  Replace the unclear pronouns and blah verbs with real subjects and exciting verbs.

Fixes

In general, avoid starting sentences with “it” in formal essays.  You can almost always be more specific and more interesting:

It was hot outside.  =>
The temperature soared to well above 100 degrees.

 It is interesting that the protagonists in the two stories are so similar. =>
The two protagonists both overcome a significant loss in childhood, both find mentors to guide them through adolescence, and both ultimately triumph over their hardships.

An easy fix for a meaningless “this” or “that” is to insert exactly what you’re referring to into the sentence:

This is the key difference between the two characters. =>
This crucial decision is the key difference between the two characters.

or get rid of “this” entirely:
Jack differentiates himself from Ralph in the moment when he kills his first pig.

That is upsetting. =>
That story is upsetting.

By the way, inserting a noun after “that” (or “this”) turns “that” from an unclear pronoun into an adjective.  Instead of referring to something vague, it’s now describing the noun (Which story?  That story.)

BACK

One thought on “Unclear Antecedent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s