Quick-ish Writing Tips: Clarifying Vague Pronoun References

Today I bring you another common grammatical dilemma – how to revise for vague pronoun reference.

What is vague pronoun reference?

The issue I see most often is the use of a pronoun which does not refer to one specific noun. To review, a pronoun is a word used to take the place of a noun, and should refer to one unmistakable noun preceding it. This noun is called the pronoun’s antecedent. Unfortunately, it is very easy to create a sentence that uses a pronoun without a clear antecedent. Take a look at this example: “After putting the disk in the cabinet, Mabel sold it.” Did Mabel sell the disk or the cabinet? The pronoun reference is faulty here because the pronoun it has two antecedents.

So how do we revise for vague pronoun reference?

Any pronoun whose reference is unclear should be replaced by the noun that you intended it to stand for. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader and obscuring the intended meaning of your arguments.

To begin with, any pronoun that switches from the person (first, second, third) already established in a statement or paragraph should be replaced by a pronoun that maintains consistent person.

For example: “The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of looking through one’s cabinet for more” should be revised to, “The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of looking through our cabinets for more.”

Simple repetition is one of the most effective ways to keep your reader’s mind on a train of thought. The haste of writing a first draft may cause you to start on one train of thought but finish on another. The result will clearly not express what you meant. Confusing sentences often result from leaving out essential words, awkwardly repeating words, and neglecting to complete a structure. Be sure to read through your work with a critical eye, trying to look at it as a reader might (Cameron).