Pronouns, Antecedents and Other Quirks

Here’s one you don’t think about all the time – do your pronouns match your antecedents? Consider the following sentence I used today in class:

The squirrel attacked him, and he was frightened.

Yes, yes – the old attacking squirrel trick. Subject aside, the pronouns are words like him and he. The antecedent in this case is the squirrel or an anonymous him. That’s the trouble with this sentence, actually. The antecedent isn’t very clear. In fact it isn’t clear at all.

Today a group of teenagers stared at my screen in the typical teenage way. They were only politely interested so that I wouldn’t put them into a seating chart. But they knew something was wrong with the sentence. They just couldn’t figure out what it was.

“It sounds funny.”
“The squirrel was stupid.”
“I’d just shoot the damn squirrel.” (Sorry, we live in Texas.)

But going with the first comment from semi-apathetic teens, the sentence does sound funny or just slightly off. If you don’t already know why, I’ll tell you why that is. He is unassigned. It’s vague. It’s confusing. It’s poor writing.

The squirrel attacked him, and he was frightened.

Who is he? The squirrel?

The squirrel attacked him, and the squirrel was frightened.

It works.

Or perhaps the him here is frightened.

The squirrel attacked him, and the boy was frightened.

I like this one better because it actually clears up two messes – now we know who he is, and the him is cleaned up as well.

Problems like this one are hard to spot in your own work. Since you’re the author, you know who you mean when you use pronouns. You know what you’re trying to say, but to the rest of us, it’s sloppy. We don’t know whether we should fear rabid squirrels or just soothe the scared boy. Most of us don’t care one way or the other.

To handle these tricky pronoun problems, take a two-step approach:

1. Always note when you use a pronoun, and do a mental check to see if you’re using it correctly.
2. Wait to revise your work. Going right back through it isn’t as helpful for this problem as waiting a day or even two. By then you’ll have forgotten what you meant in the details and the weird phrasing or confusing pronoun will jump right out at you.

Don’t be scared of pronouns, of course. These little guys make your work more conversational and easy to read. If in doubt, ask a friend to read though your work to see if your pronouns are matching up correctly. Once you’ve trained yourself to look for messy pronoun use in your work, you’re simply more aware of it and that part of the writing gets easier over time.

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

4 thoughts on “Pronouns, Antecedents and Other Quirks”

  1. When I explain this to people, I use:

    Britney hates Christina because she thinks she has no talent.

    I guess my pop-culture is dated 🙂


  2. Yeah, I totally agree with the article. I had a lot of occasions when proofreading the text did not help at all – I still sometimes pertained pronouns as they were – like you said: “…you’re the author, you know who you mean when you use pronouns…”. So what I suggest, if you use WordPress or any other blogging solution – hit the Preview button, it helps a lot because it makes me sort of feel like I’m reading someones content from an actual web page. Plus reading the article again after you have posted it will help too – I haven’t had a single article that I posted and then thought that it does not need improvement. If you are trying to perfect your writing, there is always room for some modifications=)

    • Excellent suggestions – I especially like posting/previewing and then reviewing. I always notice typos, mistakes and other possible improvements in my work after I think I’ve cleaned it up. Goes with the writer’s territory I guess. 🙂


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