Most Common Pronoun Reference Errors

1.      Too many antecedents

A pronoun should have only one antecedent (noun) that is clear and unmistakable, as mentioned earlier.

Example: “The supervisors told the workers that they would receive a bonus.”

Revised (and rephrased) example: “The supervisors complimented the workers on receiving a bonus.”

2.      Hidden antecedents

Faulty pronoun reference errors also occur when the pronoun’s antecedent functions as an adjective rather than as a noun. In such cases, the true antecedent is “hidden” from the reader because it has been subordinated to another noun.

Example: “The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of eating it anyway.”

Clearly, people do not eat dishes. What this writer means to say is, “We were tired of eating candy.” However, “candy” cannot be the antecedent for “it” because “candy,” situated in front of the noun “dish,” is acting as an adjective. Only nouns can be antecedents. To revise, substitute a noun for the pronoun “it:” “The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of eating candy anyway.”

3.      No antecedent at all

Another kind of faulty/vague pronoun reference error occurs when a writer uses a pronoun without supplying the antecedent.

Example: “The witness called the television station, but they didn’t answer.”

In this example, the pronoun “they” has no antecedent to which it can refer. To repair this error, the writer could change the pronoun “they” to a noun: “The witness called the television station, but not a single reporter answered the phone.”

4.      Pronoun used to stand for a group of words

Additionally, watch out for “this” and “which” pronouns

Example: “I did not attend the rally, which was very unpatriotic of me.”

The word “which” has no single, clear antecedent. Instead, it refers to the entire clause – “I did not attend the rally.” Remember that a pronoun must always refer to a single, clear antecedent. We can repair the above error in two ways:

Replace the pronoun with a noun: “I did not attend the rally. My actions were very unpatriotic.”

Rephrase to eliminate the pronoun: “By not attending the rally, I was unpatriotic” (Townson).

5.      Pronoun number

Pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents; this rule matches that of subject-verb agreement. Plural antecedents require plural pronouns, and singular antecedents require singular pronouns.

Example: “Each person should follow their dreams.” Here, “their” is a plural pronoun and “person” is a singular noun.

Revised: “Each person should follow his or her dream.” OR “All people should follow their dreams.”