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Avoiding confusing antecedent and pronoun situations

Here’s a very confusing situation:

Sally took her bag onto the bus that she took to work every day.

So Sally’s getting onto a bus with her bag. There’s also this ‘which she took every day’ part. The pronoun is ‘which’. But what is the pronoun’s antecedent? What word in the rest of the sentence does it represent? Well, in this case it’s ambiguous. The sentence could be talking about the bag that Sally took to work every day. But it could also be talking about the bus that she caught to work every day.

When you write sentences with pronouns you should structure them so that you never get this sort of confusion. There are usually lots of ways you can rearrange the words to make the sentence clearer. For instance, we could rewrite the sentence about Sally like this:

Sally brought the bag that she took to work every day onto the bus.

Handy Hint - Don’t use adjectives and possessive nouns as antecedents

This is a bad habit which has crept into everyday English, even though it’s not grammatically correct. Have a look at this sentence:

Sally ate Chinese food regularly; she had always liked their culture.

There are two pronouns in this sentence. The antecedent of the ‘she’ pronoun is easy to identify - it’s ‘Sally’. But the antecedent of the ‘their’ possessive pronoun is a bit more tricky. From the context of the sentence we can work out that the ‘their’ is probably referring to the word ‘Chinese’. But the way the sentence is written the ‘their’ pronoun could also refer to the noun ‘food’ (although we know that this wouldn’t make sense).

To avoid possible confusion, it’s best not to use adjectives as antecedents, like ‘Chinese’ in this sentence. You’d be better writing the sentence this way:

Sally ate Chinese food regularly; she had always liked the Chinese culture.

Having a possessive noun as an antecedent can also be a bit confusing, like in this sentence:

The dog’s ball went onto the road and then it ran after it.

How’s this for confusing? We’ve got two identical pronouns - ‘it’ and ‘it’. What do they refer to? Well, if we think about the context of the sentence, we can work out that the first ‘it’ probably refers to the dog, since only the dog can run. The second ‘it’ probably refers to the ball. But we won’t always know enough about the things in the sentence to work it out.

It’s much better to rewrite the whole sentence in a less ambiguous way:

The dog’s ball went onto the road. The dog then ran after the ball.