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Rules for Finding and Fixing Pronoun Reference Errors

Understand the problem.

Pronouns are chameleon words. In one sentence, for example, the pronoun he might mean Zippy the dog; in another sentence he might replace the rock star on stage, the President of the United States, or my lab partner Fred who picks his nose. Just as a chameleon changes its color to coordinate with its environment, a pronoun alters its meaning to match the nearby antecedent, the word that the pronoun replaces.

Problems occur when the antecedent is unclear or missing. If you say, "You should hear her purr," you might mean your cat Lucy, or you might mean the engine of your souped-up sports car. Her could refer to either the living pet or the inanimate vehicle. In a conversation, we can ask, "You mean the cat, right?" but in a piece of writing that speaks in your stead, your readers remain confused.

When you fail to confirm that a pronoun has a single, clear antecedent, you lose control of the picture you want the words to create in your readers' minds.

If you're not careful, several common situations will create unclear pronoun reference.

Exercise caution when you have two singular antecedents with the same gender.

Pronoun confusion is common when a sentence contains two or more antecedents with the same gender.

Read this example:

Edwin told Kenny that Dr. Wilson suspected that he cheated on the chemistry exam.

Which male is in trouble? Is Edwin a gossip who enjoys torturing Kenny with the thought that Dr. Wilson knows about Kenny's misconduct? Or is Edwin confessing that he is the one Dr. Wilson suspects? Because he does not have a single, clear antecedent—it can refer to either Kenny or Edwin—this sentence has pronoun reference problems.

To fix a pronoun reference error, you will often have to revise the sentence, switching out the pronoun for a clear, specific noun.

Watch what happens:

Edwin told Kenny that Dr. Wilson suspected that Kenny cheated on the chemistry exam.

Edwin told Kenny that Dr. Wilson suspected that Edwin cheated on the chemistry exam.

If you don't like the repetition of the names Kenny or Edwin, try setting up dialog like this:

Edwin told Kenny, "Dr. Wilson suspects that you cheated on the chemistry exam."

Edwin told Kenny, "Dr. Wilson suspects that I cheated on the chemistry exam."

Kenny and Edwin are examples of two gender-specific antecedents in the same sentence. The same kind of pronoun reference problem can occur with the gender-neutral it.

Read this example:

John had just set down the overstuffed sandwich when he spotted a cockroach on the table. He smashed it with his open palm before he could eat.

Some readers might assume that John smashed the insect. But other folks might think he smashed the sandwich so that it would fit in his mouth. Our confusion means that it is an unclear pronoun. Substituting a specific noun will let us know John's attitude toward a cockroach on the table:

John had just set down the overstuffed sandwich when he spotted a cockroach on the table. He smashed the insect with his open palm before he could eat.

John had just set down the overstuffed sandwich when he spotted a cockroach on the table. He smashed the bread with his open palm before he could eat.

No problem pronoun = no reference error!

A possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.

Possessive nouns function as adjectives. You can drive a fast car, a red car, a dirty car, or Mom's car. Fast, red, and dirty are all adjectives telling us which car. The possessive noun Mom's is adjectival too.

You ruin the clarity of a sentence when the antecedent for a subject or object pronoun like he or him is a possessive noun.

Read this example:

Kevin's fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna.

When we read this sentence, we assume that Kevin is the he winking at Donna. But remember that Kevin's is adjectival, not a noun. If we replaced Kevin's with agile, quick, or long, we wouldn't consider any of those adjectives the antecedent for he, so we shouldn't consider Kevin's either. And the fingers certainly aren't doing the winking as they have no eyes!

Furthermore, a reader might wonder if the whole Kevin is strumming the guitar or if just his disembodied fingers are making the music. The sentence in its current version is unclear.

To fix the problem, you can replace the pronoun with a specific noun. You can't have a pronoun reference error if you have no pronoun!

Kevin's fingers were strumming the guitar when this young man winked at Donna.

Or you can revise the sentence so that the pronoun refers to a real noun—that is, a real antecedent:

As Kevin strummed the guitar, he winked at Donna.

Use the pronoun they with precision.

During a conversation, you can clarify a pronoun's antecedent by pointing to someone or something. You might choose to introduce a visual aid. Or you might know your audience's background and experience well enough to assume that these people know who or what you mean.

But when you write, the audience is often beyond your control, so the words alone have to capture the picture that you have in your head and transfer it accurately to the heads of your readers.

When we speak, we can get away with a sentence like this one:

If you want one last greasy burrito, you better visit Tito's Taco Palace today. They say that the restaurant closes for good tomorrow.

Notice that they has no antecedent. No plural noun exists to give they its meaning. In a conversation, you can assume that your audience knows that they means, perhaps, mutual friends who work at Tito's Taco Palace. But when you write, your audience can be anyone. And maybe that audience thinks they refers to space aliens, the kitchen appliances, or talking squirrels—all possible antecedents for they.

For this reason, substitute a specific noun for an unclear they. This way, your audience sees what you saw when you composed the sentence.

If you want one last greasy burrito, you better visit Tito's Taco Palace today. Our local newspaper says that the restaurant closes for good tomorrow.

Use the pronoun it with precision.

Because speaking gives us very little time to edit before the audience gets the information, we often use an it that has no clear antecedent. We say things like the examples below:

It said on the news today that a sinkhole appeared on Primrose Avenue.

In our math textbook, it claims that statistics analysis will be one of the most important skills in the future.

What said? What claims? Neither it has a clear antecedent.

When you write, you do have time to edit and can easily fix these two sentences. Read these revisions:

On the news today a reporter said that a sinkhole appeared on Primrose Avenue.

Our math textbook claims that statistics analysis will be one of the most important skills in the future.

You can't have a pronoun reference problem if you have eliminated the problem pronoun!

Remember also that it can refer to any single thing. Read this sentence:

Lightning struck the roof, frying the circuit breaker and shorting out the television and computer. Mom can't afford it this month.

Roof, circuit breaker, television, and computer are all possible antecedents for it. Not having a roof and not having a computer cause two very different sets of problems. For clarity, use a specific noun instead of it.

Lightning struck the roof, frying the circuit breaker and shorting out the television and computer. Mom can't afford more weather problems this month.

Confirm that the pronouns this, that, and which have single, clear antecedents.

Sometimes we sum up a complicated situation with a pronouncement like "That was really cool!" or "This blew our minds!" Or we might add as a tag to the end of a sentence, "Which amazed us all." Remember, though, that that, this, and which all require one clear antecedent. If too many things happened, your reader will get confused.

Read this example:

After sending a break-up text message to his girlfriend Skyler, Jesse forgot to wash his hands before he mixed old mayonnaise into the potato salad with a dirty spoon. That was disgusting!

What one thing was disgusting? That can refer to the text message to Skyler, the dirty hands, or the poor choice of ingredients and tools. A reader cannot be sure what exactly you have pronounced disgusting.

To fix the problem, replace the pronoun that with a clear, specific noun.

Jesse's relationship skills are disgusting!

Jesse's hygiene is disgusting!

Jesse's kitchen operation is disgusting!

Use second-person pronouns only for direct address.

You, your, yours, yourself and yourselves are the second-person pronouns. If you are directly addressing your readers, these pronouns are appropriate. For example, you can ask a question like "Have you ever ... ?" or "Do you remember when ...?" to connect with your readers and draw them into your argument.

Second-person pronouns can also slip into our writing when they are not appropriate. Sometimes we want to distance ourselves from the material. Sometimes we so want to convince our readers of a point that we bring them in to the work when they don't belong.

Read these examples:

I never ride roller coasters because they make you throw up.

In ancient Egypt, only the very rich were entombed; without sufficient funds you just got buried in the sand.

I never ride roller coasters because you throw up? If you were the one who vomited, I would ride roller coasters every chance I had! In ancient Egypt, you were buried in the sand? You don't look old enough to have lived in ancient Egypt!

Replace the second-person pronouns to fix the problems:

I never ride roller coasters because they make me throw up.

In ancient Egypt, only the very rich were entombed; without sufficient funds the deceased just got buried in the sand.

Make sure that the pronouns who, which, and that refer to the right types of nouns.

The relative pronouns who, which, and that should each refer to specific types of nouns.

Using Who

Use who when you refer to people, famous animals, or named pets. Read these examples:

Lenore, who refused a dish of ice cream, had to sit through fifteen minutes of yums and ooohs as we consumed ours.

My little brother most resembles the Looney Tunes character Taz, who cannot sit still for more than a few seconds.

Our bulldog Ricky, who has his own internet video channel, enjoys surfing and skateboarding.

Using Which

Use which for inanimate objects and unnamed animals.

We dug into the tasty potato salad, which Jesse had begrudgingly prepared for the picnic.

Lenore's dish of ice cream, which was melting in the hot sun, attracted the attention of flies.

Our parrot, which my roommate rescued from the apartment roof, can say hello in three languages.

Using That

Use that to refer to anything unnamed [though who is traditional and preferred for people].

An alligator bit a boy that was fishing at the lake.

The alligator that the hunters caught was twelve feet long.

The boat that brought the alligator to shore almost capsized from the weight of the beast.

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