Avoid Vague Pronoun References

How might you address the pronoun reference problems that occur throughout your essay?

Thomas was always unprepared for class. It made his teacher increasingly mad.

Thomas was always unprepared for class. This made his teacher increasingly mad.

The highlighted words represent vague pronouns because a reader cannot tell to which noun the pronoun in each example is referring. By definition, pronouns, which take the place of a noun, cannot refer to an idea expressed in an entire sentence or statement; instead, a pronoun must refer back to a specific noun.

Writers use pronouns to avoid redundancy. The word to which the pronoun refers is generally called the “antecedent.” Pronouns need to agree in number, agree in person, and refer clearly to a specific noun. An extremely common mistake made by college writers is using pronouns—particularly the pronouns it, which, that, and this—without a clear antecedent.

There are several ways in which such vague pronoun usage could be resolved to produce stronger, clearer, and more engaging writing.

Possible Ways to Fix Vague Pronouns

  • You could replace it with a noun:

Thomas was always unprepared for class, and his constant unpreparedness drove his teacher crazy.

  • You could add a noun to this:

Thomas was always unprepared for class, and this habit of his drove his teacher crazy.

  • You could combine the two parts into a single statement:

Thomas’s constant unpreparedness made his teacher increasingly mad.

  • You could add a noun before which:

Harry was always unprepared for class, a habit which drove his teacher crazy.

Any of these methods serve to dispel confusion regarding pronoun usage. The writing process requires you to frequently re-read your paper over and over again. Be on the lookout for sentences or statements that contain pronouns without a readily identifiable antecedent. Remember, just because you (the writer) know to what noun your pronoun is referring doesn’t mean that it is clear to the reader. One major goal of mature writers is cultivating a writing style that privileges clarity. Vague pronoun usage detracts from the momentum of your paper and, at the same time, causes confusion for your reader.