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Word Matters: Perplexing Pronouns

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor
"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind, and they can be seen in the church basement Friday afternoon."

Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images

Bad writing does occasionally provide a welcome moment of hilarity, as this example from a church bulletin cited in the book “Sin and Syntax” shows. But mostly, bad writing is confusing — and we want our writing to be clear.

Unfortunately, the potential to create murky prose lies everywhere in the process of writing. Some "opportunities" to confuse readers occur at the big-picture, structural level, while others occur at the word, phrase, or sentence level. This month, I'm going to focus on an opportunity in the latter categories: vague and faulty pronoun references. By monitoring your pronoun use, you can keep your readers from becoming dazed and confused.
Before getting into details, let's review some basics: Pronouns take the place of nouns, and the noun that a pronoun replaces is called an antecedent. A pronoun should refer to only one antecedent, which (as its name implies) should precede the pronoun in a sentence. Examples of pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, they, him, her, us, and them.

You could say Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla, but phew, you don't have to.
Photo credit: Schoolhouse Rock

Now, here are three common errors in pronoun references, adapted from a teaching outline developed by Margaret L. Benner of Towson University in Maryland.

Error #1: Too Many Antecedents

One potential problem with pronoun references stems from too many antecedents. The sentence at the top of this column is an example of the error of too many antecedents. Does "they" refer to the ladies or the clothing? You can guess that clothing is the intended antecedent, but the reference isn't clear.

Here's one way to fix the sentence: "The ladies of the church have collected many kinds of cast-off clothing, which can be seen in the church basement Friday afternoon." This version omits the ambiguous "they" and places "which" next to "clothing" — and thus clarifies the meaning. (Inserting the necessary hyphen in “cast-off” also helps.)

Error #2: Hidden Antecedents

Problems with pronoun references also can occur when a pronoun's true antecedent is hidden, or obscured. Take this sentence: "The fruit bowl was empty, proving that the children were eating it."

What does "it" refer to?

"Bowl" appears to be the antecedent, but obviously people don't eat bowls. The true antecedent is "fruit," but "fruit" is functioning as an adjective here — so the antecedent is hiding.

Here's one way to fix the sample sentence: "The fruit bowl was empty, proving that the children were eating the fruit." You might think the revision sounds repetitive, but the true meaning is conveyed, which is the more important function of writing.

Error #3: Missing Antecedents

A third problem with pronoun references occurs when the antecedent is missing altogether. Consider this example: "Maria’s mother called the school kitchen, but they didn't answer."

Who's "they?"

Fixing this sentence calls for including more specific information, e.g., "Maria’s mother called the school kitchen, but the nutrition services assistants didn't answer." Or you could create an antecedent: "Maria called the nutrition services assistants at the school kitchen, but they didn't answer."

In summary, to avoid problems with pronouns, make sure each one refers to an unambiguous antecedent that precedes, and is in proximity to, the pronoun. That way, you will trade unintentional hilarity (at best) and a confused reader (at worst) for crystal-clear writing.
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