Traditional English Grammar
Chapter Three: Agreement, Reference, and Case
REFERENCE OF PRONOUNS
Not only must a pronoun agree with its antecedent in person, number and gender, but that antecedent must always be clear and unmistakable. Reference-of-pronoun errors have nothing to do with person, number, or gender; they occur when the writer does not place the pronoun close to its antecedent or when he does not designate a definite or appropriate antecedent or when he does not make the antecedent clear and sensible. Reference-of-pronoun problems are matters of style and logic, and they usually reflect general rather than specific problems.
Common Pronoun Reference Problems (Marking Symbol REF)
Here are some frequently encountered situations that cause pronoun reference problems.
1. Implied Reference:
Usually the implied or inferred reference error occurs when the antecedent of the pronoun is not actually expressed but must be inferred from the general meaning of the sentence. This particular problem arises when you use the pronouns it, which, this, that, and these to refer to an entire preceding phrase or clause rather than to a definite noun or pronoun. Correcting these implied reference errors can be accomplished in two ways: by summing up the idea of the preceding phrase or clause in a specific noun that becomes the antecedent or by rewriting the entire sentence to omit the pronoun or give it a clear antecedent.
Here are some examples:
WEAK USE OF IT: Prunella worked all week rebuilding the engine and enjoyed it very much.
BETTER: (omit pronoun) Prunella worked all week rebuilding the engine and enjoyed this experience very much.
WEAK USE OF WHICH: Hortense was in a state of shock, which was obvious by the vacant expression in her eyes.
BETTER: (provide an antecedent) Hortense was in a state of shock, a fact which was obvious by the vacant expression in her eyes.
ALSO CLEAR: That Hortense was in a state of shock was evident by the vacant expression in her eyes.
WEAK USE OF THIS: Mortimer conceived a consuming passion for persimmon daiquiris. This brought about his downfall.
BETTER: (provide an Mortimer conceived a consuming passion for persimmon daiquiris. This iniquitous affinity brought about his downfall.
2. Indefinite Use of It.
With few exceptions, it, as a third person singular neuter pronoun should have a definite antecedent. Acceptable uses of it without a definite antecedent occur when it is used impersonally (to indicate time, weather condition, and distance), situationally (to delay the subject), or as an expletive (to substitute for the subject). Consider these examples of acceptable uses of it without a definite antecedent.
IMPERSONAL IT: It is cool and comfortable here.
It is midnight.
It is not far to Atlanta.
SITUATIONAL IT: It was Hortense who kicked the field goal.
Who is it? It's Igor.
It's Greek to me!
EXPLETIVE IT: It's a shame to give up so quickly.
It is no surprise that Dudley got fired.
It's a wonder Prunella puts up with him.
3. Unacceptable Use of Indefinite It:
WEAK: In that poem it says, "Eat, drink, and be merry."
IMPROVED: That poem says, "Eat, drink, and be merry."
WEAK: Murgatroid was asleep in class, and it annoyed his teacher.
IMPROVED: Murgatroid was asleep in class; this fact annoyed his teacher.
BETTER: Murgatroid's sleeping in class annoyed his teacher.
4. Impersonal You:
Avoid using the personal pronoun you to refer to people, or classes of people generally. The pronoun you should always have a clearly understood antecedent in direct address or in an imperative sentence.
CORRECT:Homer, you should be ashamed of yourself' (direct address)
You will never know, Mugwert, who voted against you. (direct address)
Close the door before you sit down. (imperative sentence)
Open your book to page ten after you complete this exercise.
INCORRECT:(unless clearly used in direct address) In order to pass chemistry you need to know the periodic tables.
IMPROVED:In order to pass chemistry, students need to know the periodic tables.
BETTER:Chemistry students need to know the periodic tables in order to pass the course.
INCORRECT:Today you have to watch every penny you spend.
IMPROVED:Today one has to watch every penny he spends.
BETTER:Consumers today have to watch their pennies.
5. Ambiguous Pronoun Reference:
Ambiguous reference (sometimes called double reference) occurs when there are two possible antecedents for a single pronoun. The result, of course, is a lack of clarity. An ambiguous pronoun reference can be corrected or avoided in several ways: restate the antecedent; use a synonym for the antecedent; or rewrite the sentence.
AMBIGUOUS: Hortense asked Prunella to invite her boyfriend to the motorcross races with them.
BETTER: Hortense asked Prunella to invite Prunella's boyfriend to the motorcross races with them.
BEST: Prunella and her boyfriend were invited to accompany Hortense to the motorcross races.
AMBIGUOUS: Mortimer told Dudley that he was a genius.
BETTER: Mortimer told Dudley that Mortimer was a genius.
BEST: Mortimer considered himself a genius and told Dudley so.
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