Pronouns are words that replace nouns. Their function is to reduce repetition within a sentence, so that the sentence is smoother and more efficient. However, if pronouns aren’t used carefully, the meaning of the sentence may become ambiguous.
Pronoun: A word that replaces a noun e.g.
personal (I, you, he, she, etc.),
possessive (my, your, his, her, etc),
demonstrative (this, that, these, those),
relative (who, which, that etc.),
indefinite (some, anybody, everyone, no one etc.),
reflexive and intensive (myself, yourself, himself, herself etc.),
interrogative (who, what, which, whose)
Antecedent: The noun to which the pronoun refers
Each pronoun used should refer unambiguously to a specific noun. In other words, a pronoun’s antecedent should be completely clear and obvious. For example,
Clear: The article by X is the most persuasive. It argues that colonization of Mars is critical for our survival as a species.
In this sentence, 'it' can only refer to the article by X. There is no other possible antecedent.
Unclear: The article by X draws on earlier research by Y and contains a summary of historic Mars landings. It argues that colonization of Mars is critical for our survival as a species.
Here, the 'it' could refer to the article by X, or the research by Y, or the summary of historic Mars landings. There is room for misinterpretation.
Some pronoun rules
- Use 'which', 'this', 'that' and 'it' only to refer to a specific antecedent and not to a group of words. (Note that this rule can be set aside, if there is no risk of ambiguity; see below under 'Broad pronoun reference').
- Place pronouns as close to their antecedents as possible. If there are too many words between the pronoun and its antecedent, the pronoun reference may be unclear. In this situation, it is often best to replace the pronoun with its appropriate noun or noun phrase. For example,
Unclear: New Zealand's native birds evolved in isolation for millions of years, free from mammalian predators such as cats, rats, stoats and possums. Sixty-eight percent of them are now under threat of extinction.
Does 'them' refer to the native birds or the cats, rats, stoats and possums?
Clear: New Zealand's native birds evolved in isolation for millions of years, free from mammalian predators such as cats, rats, stoats and possums. Sixty-eight percent of these bird species are now under threat of extinction.
- Pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents. Plural antecedents require plural pronouns, and singular antecedents require singular pronouns.
The sun is approximately 4.6 billion years old and it accounts for 99.86% of the mass in the solar system.
The moons of Jupiter vary dramatically in size and they have orbital periods ranging from seven hours to almost three Earth years.
Types of unclear pronoun reference
- Ambiguous: the pronoun could have two or more antecedents.
- Implied (sometimes called 'hidden'): the pronoun's antecedent is a possessive adjective rather than a noun. Possessive adjectives are used to indicate ownership or possession of something.
- Broad: 'which', 'this', 'that' or 'it' refer to a whole clause or sentence rather than a specific noun or noun phrase.
- No antecedent: the pronoun has no antecedent at all, not even an implied one.
Ambiguous pronoun reference
John gave David a copy of ‘Look Back in Anger’ which was his favourite stage play.
Whose favourite play? John's or David’s?
John gave a copy of his favourite stage play, ‘Look Back in Anger’, to David.
Implied pronoun reference
In Forster's 'A Passage to India', he often depicts racial tension.
Since 'Forster' is functioning here as a possessive adjective rather than a noun, the antecedent for the pronoun 'he' is only implied.
In 'A passage to India', Forster often depicts racial tension.
Broad pronoun reference
It is sometimes argued that 'which', 'this', 'that' and 'it' should not be used to refer to groups of words (rather than a specific noun antecedent), because doing so suggests vagueness or fuzziness of thought. However, often these words can be used in this way and yet the meaning remains clear. For example,
If you are eligible to vote, you should go to the polling station and exercise that right. This is a sign that you value living in a democracy.
Here 'This' refers to 'going to the polling station and exercising the right to vote' rather than to a single antecedent. Therefore, the pronoun reference here is broad, and yet the meaning is still clear. However, you could make the meaning clearer by replacing 'This' with a noun phrase. For example:
If you are eligible to vote, you should go to the polling station and exercise that right. Turning out to vote is a sign that you value living in a democracy.
The following sentence uses 'which' to refer to a group of words, and yet the meaning is still clear:
Thirty-one percent of all deaths worldwide each year are caused by cardiovascular disease, which suggests that education on cardiovascular health should be more broadly promoted.
You could, however, make this sentence clearer by reinserting the noun phrase.
Thirty-one percent of all deaths worldwide each year are caused by cardiovascular disease. This death rate suggests that education on cardiovascular health should be more broadly promoted.
It is best to avoid using 'which', 'this', 'that' or 'it' if there is a risk of ambiguity. For example,
Many of us work long hours in office-based jobs and have limited time to shop and cook, making the convenience of cheap fast food difficult to resist. This is fuelling the global surge in obesity and non-communicable diseases like diabetes.
The possible ambiguity here is that 'this' could refer to either 'long working hours in offices' or 'limited spare time' or 'cheap and convenient fast food' or a combination of all three. Reinserting noun phrases that summarize your key point prevents this ambiguity and clarifies the argument.
Sedentary lifestyles, little free time and competitively priced fast food are fuelling the global surge in obesity and non-communicable diseases like diabetes.
Unclear: The student called the language school, but they didn't answer.
'They' has no antecedent, because this sentence makes no mention of anyone working at the language school.
Clearer: The student called the language school, but the receptionist didn't answer.
Or: The student called the language school, but no one answered.