Pronoun Reference

Pronouns stand in for nouns. That's why they're called pro - nouns. When we use them properly, our readers understand what single noun the pronoun stands for. Every problem of pronoun reference upsets this clarity so that readers have problems deciding which of two or three earlier nouns a pronoun stands for or have difficulties finding any noun at all.

I. Ambiguous Reference

If a reader does not know which of two or three earlier nouns a pronoun stands for, grammar books call that an ambiguous reference error:

Ethel told Lucy that her pie was wonderful.
[Is this pie Ethel's or Lucy's?]
The files arranged by the temporary workers were out of order, so we sent them back to the main office.
[Did the files or the workers return to the main office?]

You can fix the pie problem by making the sentence a quotation: Ethel said, "Lucy, your pie is wonderful!" You can also fix it by naming the baker: Ethel told Lucy that Lucy's pie was wonderful. That's also the way to fix the office problem: ...so we sent the files back to the main office.

II. Implied Antecedents

(An antecedent is the noun the pronoun stands for.)

Sometimes after we write a statement, we want to refer to the whole idea of the statement. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that desire unless we try to use a pronoun to do it:

Although the last race had been run, it was not clear which team had won the meet.
The student government lobbied for added vending machines, which won them praise among students.

If you tried to draw a line from the underlined pronouns to their single noun antecedents (the nouns they stand for), you wouldn't be able to do it. If the last race were the antecedent of it, the main clause would read: the last race was not clear... That doesn't make sense. If you tried to use lobbied as the antecedent for which, you'd have a pronoun standing in for a verb and that wouldn't make sense: lobbied won them high praise...

Fix such errors by naming the real nouns:

Although the last race had been run, the crowd did not know which team had won the meet.
The student goverment won praise among students by lobbying for added vending machines.

Another kind of implied reference error occurs when we try to make a possessive noun become an antecedent for a pronoun.

In Mel's new movie, he falls off a waterfall.
[Though it's obvious who he stands for, the possessive is not an adequate antecdent.]
Mel falls off a waterfall in his new movie.

III. Vague Reference

It, they, and you are fine pronouns when we use them to stand in for specific nouns. But sometimes we use them to refer to vague, unnamed entities:

In the book it says that sharks must move in order to breathe.
[Unless there's some mysterious it in the book, this is wrong.]
Despite the heat wave, they say that Seattle is a cool city.
[Ah, the great they. They must be pretty busy if all the statements attributed to them are true.]
From a reading of The Great Gatsby, you gain insight into America's jazz age.
[Let's assume this is from a formal essay. Addressing the reader in this fashion is inappropriate.]

Naming the intended noun is the cure of these problems:

The book says that sharks must move in order to breathe.
or
In the book the author says that sharks must move in order to breathe.
Despite the heat wave, the travel brouchures say that Seattle is a cool city.
From a reading of The Great Gatsby, one gains an insight into America's jazz age.

Quiz

1. The noun a pronoun stands in for is called its -
A. antecedent.
B. respondent.
C. parent.

2. If a pronoun can refer to more than one noun, it is called -
A. ambiguous.
B. implied.

3. Fred and George hate pickles, which is fine with Mabel -- who can't stand them either.
A. This sentence is correct.
B. This sentence has a pronoun reference error.

4. The weather changes rapidly in Vermont. Whether fair or foul, they always have something to say about the weather.
A. This sentence is correct.
B. This sentence has a pronoun reference error.

5. The Smith's made wonderful cakes. We were glad we saw them at the supermarket.
A. This sentence is correct.
B. This sentence has a pronoun reference error.

6. Find the error: The doctor hada an impressive arrayb of diplomas on her wall, whichc proved a comfort to many of herd patients.No Errore
A.   B.   C.   D.   E.  

7. Find the error: Increased tourisma has been a boonb to Times Square's businesses. Theyc spend a great deald of money on food, lodging, and trinkets. No Error.e
A.   B.   C.   D.   E.  

8. How could one correct: When Helen discovered that Jane had misplaced her homework, she was upset.
A. that Jane had misplaced her homework, she was upset.
B. that Jane was upset because she misplaced her homework.
C. that Jane had misplaced Helen's homework, Helen was upset.
D. that Jane's homework was misplaced by, she was upset.
E. Jane's homework, she was upset because it happens too often.

9. There are warnings against tourist traps, which is invaluable, in Jones' new book.
A. There are warnings against tourist traps, which is invaluable, in Jones' new book.
B. Warning against tourist traps, the aid offered by Jones' new book is invaluable.
C. In Jones' new book he offers invaluable warnings against tourist traps.
D. Jones offers invaluable warnings against tourist traps in his new book.
E. Jones offers in his new book invaluable warnings against tourist traps.

10. However, once Nora and Ellida go to live with their husbands, they have to convert to their ways of living and thinking.
A. This sentence is correct.
B. This sentence has a pronoun reference error.

of ten right