How to avoid the horror of unclear antecedents

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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.