Pronoun Reference

A Match Made in Writer's Heaven

Just as there's a pot for every lid, so there's an antecedent for every pronoun. The pronoun's antecedent must be clearer than the Mississippi River, or your writing will be as murky as the Big Muddy's depths. How to achieve pronoun clarity? Make a pronoun refer to one specific antecedent. As simple as that.

Here are some guidelines to follow as you filter your writing to sift out pronoun errors.

Possession and Pronouns

Take My Word for It

Pronouns are among the most frequently used words in English. Among the top 100 words: he, it, his, I, they, you, she, we, him.

Quoth the Maven

When the possessive quality is added to a noun, that noun becomes an adjective and is no longer suitable to be an antecedent.

Strictly Speaking

Not in the mood to put the pronoun in the possessive case? Instead, you can revise the sentence so the noun provides the reference for the pronoun.

Don't use a pronoun to refer to a noun's possessive form (the form that shows ownership). You can't use a noun's possessive form as the antecedent to a pronoun, unless the pronoun is also in the possessive case. This sounds a lot trickier than it is, trust me … and read these examples:

Confusing: The proctologist's discovery brought him fame.

(Because the pronoun him is not possessive, it cannot be used to refer to the possessive proctologist's.)

Clear: The proctologist became famous because of his discovery.

Confusing: Leroy's report was superb. Does he know that?

Clear: Leroy wrote a great report. Does he know that?

It's a Lock

Be sure the pronouns it, this, that, and which refer to only one antecedent. These four sweet little pronouns are especially prone to unclear pronoun reference. Here are some examples:

Confusing: Karate is a form of martial arts in which people who have had years and years of training can, using only their hands and feet, make some of the worst movies in the history of the world. This is interesting.

(What is interesting? Karate? Bad movies? The relationship between karate and bad movies?)

Clear: Karate is a form of martial arts in which people who have had years and years of training can, using only their hands and feet, make some of the worst movies in the history of the world. This phenomenon is interesting.

Confusing: If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving a baby's life, she will choose to save that without even considering if there are men on base. (What will she choose to save?)

Clear: If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving a baby's life, she will choose to save the baby's life without even considering if there are men on base.

Confusing: According to some sources, a rain of comets lasting hundreds of centuries hits the earth every few million years or so. Maybe that is how the dinosaurs perished in a mass extinction 65 million years ago.

Strictly Speaking

Avoid using a pronoun to refer to the title of a document in the document's first sentence. For example, if the title is “Big Bank's Role in Mutual Funds,” the first sentence cannot be “It is important and we must stress it.” What's the it?

Clear: According to some sources, a rain of comets lasting hundreds of centuries hits the earth every few million years or so. Maybe such a rain of comets killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Confusing: I told my friends that I was going to be a circus rouster which annoyed my boss.

Clear: My boss was annoyed because I told my friends that I was going to be a circus rouster.

It and They

Ever heard, “It said on television that …” or “In the office they say …”? Such expressions are sloppy, imprecise, and confusing. Who are these mysterious “it”s and “they”s? Eliminate this error by using the pronouns it and they carefully.

Give it a shot. Repair the following sloppy statements by straightening out the sloppy use of “it”s and “they”s.

  1. It said on the radio that it's going to rain tomorrow.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  2. In a book they say that animal testing is a bad idea; the animals all get nervous and give the wrong answers.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  3. It said that a Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean a mother.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  4. In a company they say that a committee is a group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  5. The book says that applying computer technology is simply finding the right wrench to pound in the correct screw.
    • ____________________________________________________________________

Answers

  1. The radio announcer said that it's going to rain tomorrow.
  2. The author said that animal testing is a bad idea; the animals all get nervous and give the wrong answers. (Better yet, give the author's name.)
  3. A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean a mother.
  4. Employees say that a committee is a group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.
  5. The author says that applying computer technology is simply finding the right wrench to pound in the correct screw. (Better yet, give the author's name.)

It Mania

Danger, Will Robinson

Avoid using an unncecessary pronoun to repeat the subject. Here's a no-no: "The shorter woman, who nodded at me, she knew me." The sentence should be written: "The shorter woman, who nodded at me, knew me."

You Could Look It Up

A restrictive clause is essential to a sentence; a nonrestrictive clause adds extra meaning, is set off by commas, and can be removed from the sentence. See Clauses for a more detailed description of clauses.

Strictly Speaking

Like my thighs, the distinction between that and which is becoming less firm. Some writers still reserve that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses. Others don't.

Take My Word for It

A clause introduced by that will almost inevitably be restrictive. Do not use a comma around restrictive clauses, as in this example: “The menu that the waiter handed me made my mouth water.”

It has become a fast-food word, more commonplace than burgers, fries, and a shake. Advice for life: Don't eat too much junk food, wear your galoshes when it rains, and don't overuse it.

The word it has three uses:

  • As a personal pronoun. Chris wants to see how long he can stay in the clothes dryer, but it is broken.
  • As an expletive. It is fun to eat raw cookie dough and feel sorry for yourself when you're home alone on Saturday night.
  • As an idiomatic expression for weather, time, or distance. It is cloudy today. It is noon. It is quite a distance to the home.

The unclear “it” problem arises when these uses are combined in one sentence, like this one:

Confusing: Because our electric knife was overheating, it came as no surprise that it broke just as it was time to carve the bird.

Clear: It came as no surprise that the electric knife broke just as it was time to carve the bird.

Confusing: It will be a successful project if the computer doesn't overload its memory.

Clear: The project will succeed if the computer doesn't overload its memory.

Confusing: It is clear that it is not fulfilling its duties.

Clear: Clearly, the board of directors is not fulfilling its duties.

Who's on First?

Another confusing issue concerns the pronouns who, which, and that. Here, the rule is a snap:

  1. Who refers to people or animals (only animals with names or special talents, like Socks the First Cat or Rex the Wonder Pooch). Here's an example or three:
    • The student, who was a dope, said, “Professor Zigler, I don't believe I deserve this F you've given me.”
    • The professor, who was a sensible man, said, “I agree, but unfortunately it is the lowest grade the university will allow me to give.”
    • Lassie, who was known for his intelligence and courage, was actually played by a series of collies.
  2. That and which refer to things, groups, and unnamed animals. The choice between which and that depends on whether the clause introduced by the pronoun is restrictive or nonrestrictive. Use that or which for restrictive clauses and which with nonrestrictive clauses. Here are some examples:
    • Sacred cows, which are holy, make the best hamburger. (nonrestrictive clause)

Give it a shot. Fill in the blanks with who, which, or that.

  1. The car __________ hit me rolled into a ditch … and so did I.
  2. My car, ____________ came from Rent-a-Wreck, had relatively little damage.
  3. The concept ____________ intrigued the Securities and Exchange Commission involved insider trading.
  4. The report __________ I wrote recommended the concept.
  5. The woman __________ came to visit me in jail was my former boss.

Answers

  1. The car that hit me rolled into a ditch … and so did I.
  2. My car, which came from Rent-a-Wreck, had relatively little damage.
  3. The concept that intrigued the Securities and Exchange Commission involved insider trading.
  4. The report that I wrote recommended the concept.
  5. The woman who came to visit me in jail was my former boss.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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