Pronoun Reference Problems

Pronoun references must be clear. Each pronoun must have a clear antecedent. The antecdent is the noun to which the pronoun refers. When it is not clear who or what or where the antecedent is, the reader starts thinking about lunch. In the following sentence, it is unclear whether the pronoun he refers to Kane or to Abel.

After Kane slew Abel, he just lay there, not moving.

One possible revision:

Kane murdered Abel, then, realizing he had killed his own brother, collapsed on the grass, crying.

In the above example, Kane apparently lays on the ground after murdering his brother.
Another revision:

Kane killed Abel, then lay down beside his dead brother and didn’t move.

Both revisions eliminate the pronoun, making it clear that we are talking about Kane.


Before Julie hid the bomb’s detonator in the suitcase, she discreetly caressed its rubber buttons.


Julie discreetly caressed the bomb detonator’s rubber buttons before hiding it in the suitcase.

In the above sentence, we can easily tell that the pronouns she and its refer to Julie and her detonator.

Remote reference. The pronoun occurs way too long after the antecedent, confusing the reader.

Again, after midnight, my mother stomped into my room and began to scream at me. Instead of listening, I watched the wonderful witch’s white lips berate me for not taking my anti-depressants, for not doing my French homework, for not reconciling with Brad, for not wearing the Ann Klein sweater she’d picked out, for not paying as much rent as my sister paid. I hated her.

The pronoun her refers to “my mother.” which occurs several sentences before.

Below are four common ways that pronouns cause confusion.

Avoid broad reference of this, that, which, and it.
Do not use a pronoun to refer to an implied antecedent
Avoid the indefinite use of they, it, and you.
To refer to persons, use who, whom, or whose, not which or that.

Excercises: Fix the following sentences so their pronouns agree with the antecedents.

1. Andre the Giant began to see what I saw and realized that he not only could finally overcome my physicality and artiness and speed in the ring, as well as steal my wife, but that he could do it by taking more pastry cooking classes.

2. Her main course was a chewy disappointment while her dessert was a torrid swath of licorice and confectioners sugar. They should acknowledge that the meal was out of control.

3. They insist that a good romp in the hay adds thrill juice to even the driest marriage.

4. She had adorned her skin with tattoos of human cannonballs and trashy portraits of Harley choppers. This led her students to believe she was a biker chick. In fact, she adored Martha Stewart.

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