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Tutorial for Pronoun Reference
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What is it?

Pronouns are words used in place of nouns. They provide a quick, convenient way to refer to a word that has already been named. The noun that the pronoun refers to is called its antecedent. A pronoun should refer clearly to its antecedent.

Because the researcher developed a new drug, she became famous.

(The noun researcher is the antecedent of the pronoun she. The pronoun she clearly refers to the researcher.)

How to find errors

A pronoun should refer clearly to its antecedent, the noun or pronoun for which it substitutes. If an antecedent is missing or unclear, the meaning of the sentence is also unclear. Look for the following pronoun reference problems in your writing.

  1. Pronouns that could refer to more than one antecedent.

    Unclear

    The oldies station battled the pop rock station for the highest ratings.

    Eventually, it won.

    (It’s not clear to which station the pronoun it refers.)

  2. Vague uses of they, it, this, and you. They, it, this, and you often refer vaguely to antecedents in preceding sentences or to no antecedent at all.

    Unclear

    On the Internet, they claimed that an asteroid would collide with the earth.

    (On the Internet does not explain to what they refers.)

  3. Pronouns that refer to adjectives or possessives.

    Unclear

    He became so depressed that it made him unable to get out of bed.

    (The pronoun it seems to refer to the adjective depressed, which suggests the noun depression. This noun is not in the sentence, however.)

  4. Vague uses of the relative pronouns who, whom, which, and that.

    Unclear

    Lake-effect storms hit cities along the Great Lakes. That makes winter travel treacherous.

    (The pronoun That refers to the entire preceding sentence, not to a specific noun or pronoun.)

How to correct errors

  1. Make sure each pronoun refers clearly to one antecedent.

    The oldies station battled the pop rock station for the highest ratings.

    Eventually,the pop rock stationit won.

    The revised second sentence of this pair makes clear which station won: the pop rock station.

  2. Edit to clarify vague uses of they, it, this, and you.

    On the Internet,two amateur astronomersthey claimed that an asteroid would collide with the earth.

    Adding the noun two amateur astronomers clears up the mystery of who made this claim.

  3. If a pronoun refers to an adjective or a possessive, either add the noun to which the pronoun should refer or rewrite the sentence.

    He became so depressed that his illnessit made him unable to get out of bed.

    He became so depressed that he wasit made him unable to get out of bed.

  4. Edit to clarify what who, whom, which, or that refers to.

    Lake-effect storms hit cities along the Great Lakes. These storms makeThat makes winter travel treacherous.

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