A pronoun takes the place of a noun, and usually refers to a word used earlier in the text called an antecedent (ante=before). In the sentence, “The teacher brought her dog to class,” the word her refers back to teacher, so teacher is the antecedent of the pronoun her. It would sound awkward to repeat the noun, “The instructor brought the instructor’s dog to class.” In simple sentences like this, it’s clear what noun the pronoun is replacing.
The pronoun’s antecedent must agree in number, either singular or plural form, with the noun to which it references:
The boy wandered off the path, and he became lost. (singular noun = boy; singular pronoun = he)
The instructors must administer their exams before Friday. (plural noun = instructors; plural pronoun = their)
Of course, the previous examples are simple sentences, and pronoun-antecedent agreement becomes more complicated with more complex sentences.
Effective writing communicates clearly, and the overuse of pronouns can lead to confusing sentences. Beginning writers often overuse pronouns when using the noun would help clarify the sentence, as in the examples below:
CONFUSING After Dave studied with John, he realized he still did not understand trigonometry.
CLEAR After studying with John, Dave realized he still did not understand trigonometry.
CONFUSING After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered they were full of insects.
CLEAR After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the flowers were full of insects.
CLEAR After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the potting soil was full of insects.
CLEAR After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that both were full of insects.
Avoiding Indefinite Use of It and They
Indefinite pronouns refer to a non-specific person, place, or thing. It and they are often used to make reference to people or situations, but in writing, they sound vague and can lead to confusion. To solve this particular error, name who “they” is:
VAGUE It is said that the unemployment rate is declining.
CLEAR The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate is declining.
VAGUE They said that the outcome of their research is inconclusive.
CLEAR MIT researchers said the outcome of their research is inconclusive.
As you can see, the revised sentence is much clearer when the noun is used.
Now you try!
Below are some sentences with pronoun-antecedent problems. Correct the underlined error:
______________1. Both the computer monitor and the refrigerator door have its shiny surface smeared with dog snot from our curious puppy Oreo.
______________2. The new and improved laundry detergent restored Hector’s mud-stained pants to its original condition.
______________3. After feeding several quarters into the gumball machine, a person learns that they have little chance of receiving the miniature camera in the display.
______________4. Mrs. Carson, like every other American literature teacher, has their own interpretation of the symbols in Moby-Dick.
______________ 5. A person who eats too many jawbreakers risks loosening their fillings.
(Above quiz courtesy of Grammar Bytes)