Identifying and Addressing Unclear Pronouns & Antecedents

What are pronouns and antecedents?

A pronoun is any word that stands in for a previously stated noun, and an antecedent is whatever noun a certain pronoun represents. Using pronouns helps make writing less wordy and repetitive, improving style and expressing the same ideas in fewer words. For example, a piece about “George Washington,” the first president of the United States, does not need to repeat this full name every time it appears, but can instead refer to the antecedent “George Washington” with the pronoun “he”:

When George Washington was asked to run for office, he initially refused.

This article will discuss two common causes of unclear pronouns and antecedents. The first cause is when there are multiple possible antecedents that a single pronoun could refer to; the second is when a pronoun is used in the absence of any explicit antecedent.

Unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents

The first and simplest source of unclear antecedents is ambiguity due to multiple possible antecedents. In the example given in the preceding sub-section,  “George Washington” is the obvious antecedent of “he.” This antecedent becomes unclear, however, when there are multiple possible nouns that “he” could refer to:

President George Washington and his vice president, John Adams, had a difficult relationship, which he wrote about in letters to friends.

In this sentence, “he” could refer to either Washington or Adams, making the meaning unclear to readers.

Or, for another example:

American students differ from European students in that they expect more personalized attention.

Here, “they” could refer to either American students or European students. Unless readers are familiar with these two groups and their behavior, they will not know the intended meaning.

Especially for non-native English speakers

Non-native English speakers should be particularly aware of the possibility for ambiguous pronouns, since many other languages have more or different pronouns, denoting differences in gender and case. Compare a list of the pronouns used in your native language with a list of the pronouns used in English: any instances when multiple pronouns in your native language share one pronoun in English, or when one pronoun in your native language is divided into multiple pronouns in English, are especially likely to result in misunderstanding.

Practice: Solving unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents

To solve problems of unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents, you must first be able to identify all of the pronouns in your writing. This task can be more challenging than you think, because pronouns are not always as obvious as “she” or “it” (if you are unsure of whether certain words are pronouns or not, see, for example, for a comprehensive overview).

Once you have identified all of your pronouns, connect these pronouns with their antecedents, making sure that there are no confusing nouns that come between pronouns and antecedents. This recommendation does not mean that no nouns at all can come between pronouns and their antecedents. For example, in the sentence given in the beginning of the present article, “When George Washington was asked to run for office, he initially refused,” the only pronoun is “he.” While there are two nouns in this sentence (“George Washington” and “office”), “George Washington” is the only noun that would be represented by “he.” Since “office” would, instead, usually be replaced with “it,” this second noun causes no problems for readers.

If you do find unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents, there are two easy ways to fix the problem: (1) replace the pronoun with its antecedent, or (2) rewrite the sentence.  Take, for example, this sentence that was given earlier, in which an unclear antecedent for “he” was demonstrated:

President George Washington and his vice president, John Adams, had a difficult relationship, which he wrote about in letters to friends.

This sentence can be fixed by replacing “he” with “Adams,” the writer’s intended antecedent:

President George Washington and his vice president, John Adams, had a difficult relationship, which Adams wrote about in letters to friends.

Alternatively, the sentence can be rewritten in any number of ways to make the antecedent of “he” unambiguous:

Vice President John Adams wrote in letters to friends about the difficult relationship that he had with President George Washington.

Unclear antecedents due to unstated or assumed antecedents

Sometimes an antecedent is unclear not because there are multiple nouns that a pronoun may refer to, but because the noun that the pronoun refers to has not been stated. This error is especially common when writers use first-person plural pronouns—we, us, our, and ours—to imply unity between the writer and the readers. This implied unity may be useful and appropriate when discussing a common problem or need for action, writing about “our problem” or “how we can move forward,” respectively.

However, if you use first-person plural pronouns to emphasize group identity and connect more intimately with readers, make sure that you and your readers share a common understanding of who is included in or excluded from this group. For instance:

In my research on the growing role of standardized testing, it has become clear to me that we need to seriously rethink our educational goals and values.

In this sentence, the writer has not defined who “we” and “our” refer to. While readers can often use prior information and context clues to make a good guess about whether, for example, “we” refers to Americans, residents of a particular state, members of a particular school system, or teachers in a particular school, you should make sure that there is no doubt in readers’ mind about who is included in this group: without this common understanding, you will have a much more difficult time reaching your intended audience and bringing about change—the real goal of a persuasive essay.

One group that demonstrates the value of clear pronouns is politicians. People who hold high-ranking public office rely heavily on the persuasive power of their speaking, and are very careful to always clearly specify their audience. This mindfulness makes their message more powerful, and helps them to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings. It is, for example, extremely rare for President Obama to use words such as “we” or “you” before explicitly defining his audience as “my fellow Americans.” Likewise, politicians serving in the European Union take care to specify whether they are addressing only their fellow nationals, or the entire European community, any time they speak publicly.

Unclear antecedents and unconscious bias

Undefined first-person plural pronouns may go beyond ambiguity and may even alienate or offend readers by unconsciously excluding them from the implied audience of the piece. Such unintentional exclusion is especially prone to happen when members of privileged groups write about historically marginalized groups such as women, people of color, and people with disabilities. For example, writers who argue with the best of intentions that “we should no longer consider people with disabilities as being handicapped, but rather as offering something unique and valuable to our workplace” or that “we need to do a better job of becoming aware of ways in which we have all benefitted from institutional prejudice against people of color” are likely unaware that their undefined pronouns logically imply audiences that are fully abled or white, respectively. Writers who find themselves using pronouns in this way need not feel ashamed, but should take care that their audience—whether explicitly stated, implied through undefined pronouns, or left unstated—is appropriately inclusive.

Practice: Solving unclear antecedents due to unstated or assumed antecedents

Unclear antecedents due to unstated or assumed antecedents are mostly due to writers’ assumptions about what their readers will think and know. The best way to test for unclear antecedents of this type is, therefore, to first identify all of the pronouns with unstated antecedents in your writing. Then ask a reader (ideally, a member of your target audience) to look through your paper and explain what any unspecified pronouns refer to. If there are any instances in which your intended meaning of a pronoun differs from your reader’s understanding of that pronoun—if the perceived audience is broader, smaller, or simply different from what you had intended—you need to add or change text to clarify who your audience is. If you are writing about a historically marginalized group, a reader who identifies as a member of that group may be especially helpful in catching instances in which pronouns are not appropriately inclusive.

Summary of Key Points

Pronouns not only help writers to reduce word count, but are essential to good style and readability. However, pronouns can become ambiguous when there are multiple possible antecedents for a single pronoun, or when an antecedent is not clearly stated. Clearly defining all of your pronouns will help your audience understand your intended meaning, making your writing more effective and persuasive. By training yourself to spot unconscious biases in your use of first-person plural pronouns, you can also learn a lot about your own assumptions, helping you to be a more thoughtful, inclusive, and respectful writer.