How to avoid the horror of unclear antecedents

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Does a grammatical term such as “unclear antecedent” make your brain buzz unpleasantly? Let me help make it simpler so you can edit your own writing more effectively….

When I was in high school, I used to get back my essays filled with little red markings. These notes said things like “SP” for spelling mistakes, “run-on sentence” (although I seldom made that particular error) and “unclear antecedent” for my most common foul-up. Even that red-lettered admonishment seemed unclear to me at the time.

But today, more than 40 years later, I have a much better grasp of grammar. So, let me give you some easy-to-understand instruction on how to avoid unclear antecedents.

An antecedent is a word that gives meaning to a pronoun such as “he,” “she,” “it,” or “this.” So, how can it be unclear? Let me give you an example:

The folder was on the bus, but now it’s gone. 

This sentence provides a classic example of an unclear antecedent because the reader can’t be certain what “it” the writer means. Is he or she referring to the folder? Or the bus? (Or, perhaps, both?) But this is a junior high example of unclear antecedents, and I mention it only to be complete. Most bloggers, academics or corporate writers are too smart to make this kind of mistake.

More writers get tied up by what’s called a “faraway antecedent.” This fancy term refers to a pronoun that is too far away from the word it is replacing. Let’s look at an example of that type of problem:

New York City is a place people dream of visiting. Millions of people go every year to walk between the interesting shops and see the latest Broadway shows. The rate of tourism has skyrocketed for it. 

The word “it,” which is meant to refer to “New York City,” is too far away from the noun it’s replacing. I would fix that error like this:

Because of this, the rate of tourism has skyrocketed for the Big Apple.

Of course, you could also simply repeat the words “New York City,” but I always prefer to avoid repetition when possible.

Here’s another error that’s relatively common. Some writers — unaware that shops, stores, businesses and organizations should always take a singular pronoun, such as “it” — write sentences like this one: 

I never go to that shop because they have terrible customer service.

You can fix this problem (technically known as a faulty co-reference) this way:

I never go to that shop because it has terrible customer service. 

Remember, even though a shop or a corporation seems big and might hire several thousand people or encompass dozens of stores or outlets, the business itself is a singular entity.

Here’s another point to keep in mind: I’m old-fashioned enough that I always try to make pronouns match their antecedent in terms of whether they are singular or plural. For example:

Every student must have their books.

Every student must have his book. [correct but sexist] 

All students must have their books. [correct]

For me, this rule also applies to words such as “everyone” and “anyone” which we usually treat as plural but which, in fact, are singular. Thus, it’s incorrect to say “Everyone must have their books” and accurate to say, “Everyone must have his or her books.” But because that phrase sounds so stuffy, I usually try to change the original noun to a more neutral and gender-free term such as “all students.”

But the number one antecedent error I find in much of the work I edit relates to the use of pronouns such as “it” and “this.” Writers, including me in my crappy first drafts, often use “it” or “this” in vague, non-specific ways, assuming the reader will know what we’re saying. Here are some examples:

It was hot outside.

It is interesting that so many NFL players are taking a knee during the national anthem.

This is the key issue that customers need to understand. 

Fortunately, it’s easy enough to fix these errors. How? Be more specific!

The weather was hot. Or, The temperature was hot. 

Many NFL players are taking a knee during the national anthem right now. I support/oppose their action because… 

Customers need to understand that… [describe issue here]. 

This last error is so common I suggest you turn your editing into a game that many writers can see as easy and fun. Here’s how to play it:

Click on your search key (on my Mac, that’s command + F) and then type in the word “this.” Review how you’ve used this word every time and ensure that the word it’s replacing (its antecedent) is 100 percent clear. Then do exactly the same thing with the word “it.”

If you’ve hired a professional copy editor, your own editing efforts, beforehand, will likely save you money, because the editor won’t have to work so hard. If you haven’t, your readers will be grateful for your extra attention.

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My video podcast last week addressed the issue of fear of publishing. Please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do unclear antecedents trouble you or do you think such grammar concerns are too much fuss about nothing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to “Goat Airsoft,” the winner of this month’s book prize, Becoming an Academic Writer by Patricia Goodson for a Sept. 11/17  comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/17 will be put into a draw for a copy of On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

 

Posted October 3rd, 2017 in Power Writing

  • LJ

    Thinking of the horror of Las Vegas right now, not antecedents…

  • greg_gandenberger

    This. IMO repetition is usually fine and much better than a pronoun that isn’t crystal clear.

    • I agree that pronouns need to be crystal clear, but if it’s possible to avoid repetition (with the use of effective synonyms) I prefer to take that approach.

  • Abby

    Thanks for the tip! I just Command-F-ed “this” for a difficult report, and found 16 of the ambiguous little buggers. Not all are in trouble, but some definitely are.

  • Kelly Carter

    Doesn’t British English (a.k.a, English) refer to businesses and organizations as plural entities? Although I’m accustomed to the way American English uses the singular antecedent, the British way makes more sense to me.

    • Hmm, I’m pretty sure the English style is to treat businesses and organizations as singular as well. Will ask my copy editor, though…

  • John Blois

    Do you really hate singular “they”, even in the following case: “Someone is at the door; I wonder what they want?” I think it’s an elegant solution to the ugly “he/she” (and without resorting to plurals). And it has stood the test of time, persisting for several hundred years. In this example, does it cause any confusion compared to what readers already know (and don’t know)? They know someone is at the door, but they don’t who that person is. So if you use “they,” it doesn’t add to, or detract from, that situation.

    • Yes, it situations like that — which are spoken and informal — of course I’ll use “they.” But in writing I’ll try to restructure the sentence so as to avoid such an issue. Copy editors no longer regard this usage as “incorrect” but I still prefer to avoid it (in writing) if I can.

  • Lesley Grainge

    I haven’t responded for a while but just to let you know, Daphne, that I am still enjoying these weekly articles and also the podcasts. I smiled a few minutes ago when I read an article in The Guardian, (UK), which made this very mistake in the first line. I won’t share it as I don’t want to make it personal but it was glaring! Would I have noticed it if I hadn’t read your blog? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes my brain corrects mistakes as I am reading, although that mostly happens if I am doing my own editing. Is it because I know what I meant so therefore the error doesn’t stand out? I guess that’s why it is so important to have someone else go through it.
    Thanks once again.

    • Glad you’re enjoying my posts, Lesley. Thanks for your kind words.

  • Jagadish Kumar

    ‘The folder was on the bus, but now it’s gone’. We find sentences like that in our daily lives and don’t know a way to deal with them. Could you suggest a solution please.

    • I would say: The folder that was on the bus is now gone. This eliminates the pronoun and removes the confusion.

      • Jagadish Kumar

        So nice. Thank you very much, Daphne.

  • Michele Moore

    Hi Daphne, you mention here the number one antecedent error you find in much of the work you edit relating to the use of pronouns such as “it” and “this”. Although this is technically an error, it is also true that examples of these can be found in the writing of many top authors. Is it not more a case of being clear in our writing and not over editing?

    • I guess I’d ask who the “top authors” were. There are some bestselling authors whose writing I really don’t admire (I put John Grisham into that category), so perhaps the people who make that kind of mistake fall into that camp? Alternatively, perhaps the authors you mention are making these errors in spoken dialogue? If that’s the issue, good for them! They are making their characters sound like REAL people! There is a vast difference between the spoken and the written word and dialogue in novels needs to reflect the former.

  • mellowflannel

    Great reminder. Thanks!