Our pronouns are sometimes vague, lonely and dangling because we fail to hinge them on a specific unmistakable antecedent.
Antecedent is the noun that a pronoun refers to in a given sentence. E.g. Shade thinks she is better at mathematics. This sentence does not confuse us because Shade is the only noun serving as the only antecedent to ‘she’ in the sentence. If there had been two nouns in the sentence, we would have been trying to really know who the pronoun ‘she’ refers to.
E.g. ‘Shade tells her sister that she is better at mathematics.’ Who does the pronoun ‘she’ refer to? Shade or her unnamed sister? The rule of thumb says that the pronoun refers to the closest noun. In this case, the nearest antecedent is ‘sister.’ If Shade wishes to really show that she is the one who is better than her sister at mathematics, she needs to say or write this in another way. ‘Shade tells her sister, I am better at mathematics.'
Another example: When Tunde eventually met his father, he was very glad. The question is who is glad? Tunde or his father? To answer this question, we would have to rewrite the sentence thus: Tunde was glad when he eventually met his father.
I found out that people commit three major errors where vague pronoun reference is concerned.
1.The concealed or unseen antecedent. This usually happens when the antecedent of a pronoun acts as an adjective instead of functioning as a noun.
e.g. Samuel dialed Muhibb’s number repeatedly but HE did not pick the call.
Who did not pick the call? Samuel or Muhibb?
‘Muhibb’s’ is a concealed antecedent; that’s why the sentence is not clear. ‘Muhibb’s’ qualifies ‘number.’ Number cannot pick the call.
Replace the HE with Muhibb and you’d have a clear idea of who’s not picking whose call.
Samuel dialed Muhibb’s number but Muhibb did not pick the call.
You can rephrase the sentence thus: Muhibb did not pick the call, though Samuel dialed his number repeatedly.
e.g. The juice bottle was perforated; I still drank IT anyway.
What does the pronoun IT refer to? The bottle or the juice? You cannot drink the bottle but you can drink the juice. The sentence does not clarify this simple fact. The juice coming before bottle serves as an adjective to modify the bottle. And we cannot have adjective in place of a noun because only nouns qualify to be antecedents. So how do we resolve this? First, substitute a noun or noun phrase for the IT. So we have: The juice bottle was perforated; I still drank the juice anyway.
2. Nil antecedent. This happens in sentences that have no antecedents at all. Speakers and writers do fall short here as they sometimes produce sentences that have pronouns without antecedents.
E.g. Although Komolafe was intelligent, she hardly used it.
What does the pronoun ‘it’ refer to in this sentence? ‘It’ does not have an antecedent in this sentence, hence the sentence should be rephrased: ‘Although Komolafe was intelligent, she hardly used her intelligence.’ ‘Although Komolafe was blessed with so much intelligence, she hardly used it.’ Here the ‘it’ has ‘intelligence’ as its antecedent.
‘It says in the letter that love is essential.’ This sentence has a pronoun without an antecedent. Where is the antecedent of the pronoun ‘it’? We can reconstruct it thus: ‘The letter says that love is essential’ or ‘According to the letter, love is essential.’
3. Multiple antecedents for a particular pronoun. A pronoun should have just one noun as its antecedent. e.g. The teachers told the students that they will soon go on holiday.
Who will soon go on holiday? The teachers or the students? Who does the ‘They’ refer to? It could be the teachers, the students or both. How does one now specify? Let’s rephrase: ‘The teachers told the students that the students will soon go on holiday.’ ‘The teachers told the students that they themselves will soon go on holiday.’ ‘The teachers informed the students that the school will soon close for the season.’ As you can see, achieving specificity is quite tricky here.
e.g. Remove the corpse from the coffin and burn it.
What should be burnt? The coffin or the corpse?
The problem is in the fact that the pronoun IT has two antecedents. This is not right. A pronoun can only have one antecedent at a given time. Substitute the noun intended for the pronoun ‘It.’ ‘Remove the corpse from the coffin and burn the coffin.’
Never make just one pronoun refer to a group of words. A pronoun should stand in for a noun antecedent. e.g. ‘Tejumola asked Arin to let Debbie know why Israel was not present at the party. This got Suzy irritated.’
The antecedent of ‘This’ is the whole of the previous sentence. How do we know what exactly got Suzy irritated? Could it be Israel’s absence at the party? Could it be because Tejumola asked Arin to let Debbie know why Israel was not present at the party? Could it be because she did not want Debbie to know the reason for Israel’s absence?
Let’s solve this riddle here: ‘Suzy got irritated because Tejumola asked Arin to let Debbie know why Israel was not present at the party.’ or ‘Tejumola’s asking Arin to let Debbie know why Israel was not present at the party got Suzy Irritated.’
We do this a lot, ‘I did not return the money to the editor, which was very bad of me.’ The ‘which’ in this sentence does not have a one-word noun antecedent, instead it sees the whole of the first part of this sentence as the antecedent. You do not refer to a whole group of words as an antecedent of a pronoun. The speaker means to say, ‘My not returning the money to the editor is very bad.’ Or ‘I did not return the money to the editor, my action was very bad.’ Or ‘Not returning the money to the editor makes me a bad person.’
Written by Omidire Idowu Joshua
Omidire, Idowu Joshua is an efficient editor, proofreader, and content writer. He conducts online English/writing classes for individuals and corporate bodies. Reach him via email@example.com