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Positioning Pronoun-Antecedent Pairs

One way to lose a reader is to let your pronouns wander far from their antecedents. To avoid confusion, keep a pronoun and its antecedent near each other.

Often, but not always, the pronoun and antecedent appear in the same sentence. Sometimes are in different sentences. Either way, the idea is the same: If the antecedent of the pronoun is too far away, the reader or listener may become confused. Check out this example:

Bernie picked up the discarded paper. Enemy ships were all around, and the periscope’s lenses were blurry. The sonar pings sounded like a Mozart sonata, and the captain’s hangnails were acting up again. Yet even in the midst of such troubles, Bernie was neat. It made the deck look messy.

It? What’s the meaning of it? You almost have to be an FBI decoder to find the partner of it (paper). Try the paragraph again.

Enemy ships were all around, and the periscope’s lenses were blurry. The sonar pings sounded like a Mozart sonata, and the captain’s hangnails were acting up again. Yet even in the midst of such troubles, Bernie was neat. He picked up the discarded paper. It made the deck look messy.

Now the antecedent and pronoun are next to each other. Much better!

Some believe that position alone is enough to explain a pronoun-antecedent pairing. It’s true that a pronoun is more likely to be understood if it’s placed near the word it represents. In fact, you should form your sentences so that the pairs are neighbors. However, position isn’t always enough to clarify the meaning of a pronoun. Standardized test writers want to know whether you can write clearly and express exact meaning, so they hit you with quite a few pronoun-antecedent problems.

The best way to clarify the meaning of a pronoun is to make sure that only one easily identifiable antecedent may be represented by each pronoun. If your sentence is about two females, don’t use she. Provide an extra noun to clarify your meaning.

Look at this sentence:

Helena told her mother that she was out of cash.

Who is out of cash? The sentence has one pronoun — she — and two females (Helena, Helena’s mother). She could refer to either of the two nouns.

The rule here is simple: Be sure that your sentence has a clear, understandable pronoun-antecedent pair. If you can interpret the sentence in more than one way, rewrite it, using one or more sentences until your meaning is clear:

Helena said, “Mom, can I have your ATM card? I looked in the cookie jar and you’re out of cash.”

or

Helena saw that her mother was out of cash and told her so.

What does this sentence mean?

Alexander and his brother went to Arthur’s birthday party, but he didn’t have a good time.
A. Alexander didn’t have a good time.
B. Alexander’s brother didn’t have a good time.
C. Arthur didn’t have a good time.

Answer: Who knows? Rewrite the sentence, unless you’re talking to someone who was actually at the party and knows that Arthur got dumped by his girlfriend just before his chickenpox rash erupted and the cops arrived. If your listener knows all that, the sentence is fine. If not, here are a few possible rewrites:

Alexander and his brother went to Arthur’s party. Arthur didn’t have a good time.

or

Arthur didn’t have a good time at his own birthday party, even though Alexander and his brother attended.

or

Alexander and his brother went to Arthur’s party, but Arthur didn’t have a good time.
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