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Unclear Pronoun Antecedents:

Note in the following sentence how unclear pronouns might refer to more than one antecedent, leaving the reader unsure of the writer's intended meaning.

Lizzy told her mother that her sweater had a hole in it.

In this red sentence above, who has the hole in her sweater? Is it Lizzy? Or her mother? The reader might become confused. The rule of thumb is that the pronoun refers to the the closest antecedent, in this case, the word mother. If the writer intends to indicate that Lizzy is the one whose sweater is ragged, the sentence needs rewriting.

Lizzy told her mother, "My sweater has a hole in it."

Or, if the writer intends the opposite meaning, she might write this version:

Lizzy told her mother, "Your sweater has a hole in it."

Unclear pronouns are particularly dangerous with the pronoun it. The best way to fix the problem is to rephrase the sentence in a new way. However, if there is more than one possible antecedent, the result is ambiguous.

When Alexander drove the car through the garage door, he badly damaged it.

Did Alexander damage badly his car? Or the garage door?

Cathy was surprised she had been voted president by her classmates who never had much self-confidence.

Was Cathy surprised her classmates all voted for her because she herself had little self-confidence? Or was Cathy surprised because her classmates voted for her, even though they never had much self-confidence?

The convention is that such pronouns refer to the closest noun or pronoun. One way to cure this problem is to move the who-clause so that is closer to what it modifies. For example, we might rewrite the sentence with Cathy this way:

Cathy, who never had much self-confidence, was surprised she had been voted president by her classmates.

Or, if we wish to emphasize that the classmates are the ones lacking confidence, we could try this way:

Cathy was surprised she had been voted president by her classmates since they never had much self-confidence.

Click here to go back to the earlier pronoun usage page.


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