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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Grammer Lesson: Pronouns and Antecedents

              What Is an Antecedent? 

Whatever kind of pronoun you have, the pronoun takes the place of a specific noun you’ve already mentioned. The noun that a pronoun refers to is called an antecedent. Not all pronouns will refer to an antecedent, however.

In the sentence “The driver totaled his car,” the word “his” refers back to “driver,” so “driver” is the antecedent of the pronoun “his.” It would sound silly to repeat the noun: “The driver totaled the driver’s car.” So, in simple sentences like this, readers are clear on what pronoun is replacing what noun.

 Everyone here earns over a thousand dollars a day.

The word "everyone" has no antecedent.

Problem 1: Missing or Faraway Antecedents

"It" and "they" seem to be especially tempting to use without an antecedent or with the wrong antecedent, so be especially vigilant around them.
Our first antecedent problem concerns antecedents that are missing or very far from their corresponding pronouns. For example, it would be incorrect to write, “Here at work they expect us to show initiative” (1). In that case, “they” does not refer back to any plural noun. Those lurking bosses are implied but not actually mentioned. Therefore, the antecedent is missing. To solve this particular error, we just need to name who “they” is: “Our bosses expect us to show initiative.”

Now for the first of those 
silly sentences we promised you. This one comes courtesy of the useful Grammar Desk Reference: “Breathe in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds, then breathe out through your mouth” (2). This crazy sentence illustrates how easy it is for readers to accidentally think that the antecedent is the noun closest to the pronoun. The pronoun “it” seems to refer to “nose,” the singular noun closest to the word “it”; however, the writer did not mean for you to hold your nose. What’s missing here is a clear antecedent: “your breath.”

For some reason the pronouns 
"it" and "they" seem to be especially tempting to use without an antecedent or with the wrong antecedent as you saw in the last two examples, so be especially vigilant around them (3). “It” and “they” also seem to be likely to appear far from their antecedents. Making your reader search through an entire paragraph to find the antecedent for a lagging "it" or "they" won't endear you to your audience (4). So when you use an “it” or a “they,” make sure a specific and definite antecedent is nearby. 

Problem 2: Anticipatory Reference 

Our second antecedent problem is what’s called “anticipatory reference,” which Bryan Garner calls “the vice of referring to something that is yet to be mentioned (5)," meaning that the writer puts the pronoun before the antecedent—a no no.
Whoever came up with the phrases “Don’t put the cart before the horse” and “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” could have been talking about pronouns that appear before their antecedents. For example, if you say, “If it’s available, be sure to order the champagne,” your readers will wonder what “it” refers to. Only when readers get to the end of the sentence do they learn that “it” means “champagne.”
To avoid confusing your readers, make sure the antecedent comes first. In many cases, you can solve the problem by switching around the noun and pronoun: “If champagne’s available, be sure to order it.”

Problem 3: Ambiguous Antecedents 

The third and last antecedent problem concerns ambiguous antecedents. Pronouns pop up in almost every sentence, and sometimes readers may feel as if they are juggling. They’re trying to remember which nouns have already been mentioned so that they can correctly match them up with later-appearing pronouns. Don’t turn your readers into a circus act. Your job is to provide a pleasurable and easy reading experience. Ensure that your pronouns and antecedents are clearly marked.

Take this odd pair of sentences, in which we meet an ambiguous antecedent: “The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. It was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.” That’s a pretty big light bulb! The pronoun “it” could, in theory, refer to various singular nouns in this sentence: “room,” “chair,” “desk,” or “light bulb.” Naturally, readers pair “it” with “light bulb,” the closest singular noun, and so you get an 
absurd sentence.
In this case, repeating the antecedent could help, but it sounds awkward: “The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. The room was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.” A better move is to combine the sentences: “The room, twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide, contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb.”

Here is the last promised ridiculous sentence, this one quoted from a church bulletin and featured in Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I hope this odd sentence will convince you to monitor your pronouns more carefully: “The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind, and they can be seen in the church basement Friday afternoon” (6). The pronoun “they” finds itself in an awkward position. Does it refer to the ladies or the clothing? Well, we can guess that “items of clothing” is the intended antecedent, but it doesn’t appear that way.
Of course, there's another problem with that sentence--one could also interpret it to mean the church ladies are running around in their birthday suits, but we'll save that problem for another day.

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