Monday, October 19, 2015

Common Errors to Avoid: Pronoun Shifts and Confusing Antecedents

A sentence diagram that clearly points out the shift in pronoun case between one clause and another.
Avoid Shifting Pronouns to Avoid Clarity Errors

The use of pronouns can be a tricky thing, but errors can be avoided if you always check your antecedents.


The first common error that can be avoided by checking your antecedents is an inconsistent point of view.  The second common error is the use of a vague or ambiguous reference.

Point of View and Pronoun Shift

The point of view is the "relative position from which something is seen or a subject is considered" (Shaw 358). When this point of view changes, it can make your writing a bit confusing for a reader to understand, and that's never a good thing.

Take the following sentence, for example, which includes a shift in number: "A puppy can bring a person a lot of joy, but they are also a lot of work."  Can you see it?  The pronoun in the sentence is "they," which is plural.  However, it's antecedent, or the word it refers to, is "puppy," which is singular.

The sentence needs to be corrected for the shift in number in order to clarify the pronoun-antecedent relationship: "A puppy can bring a person a lot of joy, but a puppy is also a lot of work," or "A puppy can bring a person a lot of joy, but he is also a lot of work."

Another type of pronoun shift is class or formality.  For example, instead of writing "One should always return library books on time if you want to avoid fees," maintain either the third person or the second person throughout the sentence.  To correct it you could write, "One should always return library books on time if one wants to avoid fees," or "You should always return library books on time if you want to avoid fees."

Vague or Ambiguous Pronouns

We call a sentence or phrase ambiguous when there are multiple meanings to choose from, but we don't know which meaning the writer means for us to choose. We say a sentence or phrase is vague when meaning is implied, or if we can't figure out any meaning.   Here are some examples:

Ambiguous: "The veterinarian took the puppies and kittens from the pet carriers and placed them on the floor."  The pronoun in the sentence is "them," but we aren't sure if "them" refers to the puppies, the kittens, or the pet carriers.  What was placed on the floor?  There are three different words in the sentence from which to choose, but the antecedent is ambiguous, so we just do not know.

In order to clarify our meaning we can say, "The veterinarian took the puppies and kittens from the pet carriers and placed the carriers on the floor."

Vague: "They have great desserts in Canada."  If the writer means to say that Canadians make great desserts, she should use "Canadians" as the subject of her sentence.  However, because the antecedent to the sentence is implied, does not appear in the sentence, she might also mean something else, like "restaurants," "French bakeries," or some other unknown subject.  We simply do not know because the antecedent, the meaning of the pronoun, is missing.  To correct the sentence the writer should use a specific noun as the subject instead of using a pronoun, which is a good rule of thumb for all sentences.

Revision and editing take time and practice, but if you know what to look for when checking your pronouns and antecedents, the process can be made much easier.  Always check your pronouns for shifts in case or number and for vague or ambiguous antecedents.



Works Cited


Shaw, Harry. A Complete Course in Freshman English. 2nd revised ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940. Print.






Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.














4 comments:

  1. Can you please clarify the example for vague. Specifically "antecedent to the sentence is implied, does not appear in the sentence" and "do not know because the antecedent, the meaning of the pronoun, is missing"

    Ron

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    1. Sure! Do you see how in the first example the antecedent to "them" is actually in the sentence? When a pronoun is vague, the antecedent is not in the sentence. If I say "This is the way to do it," neither "This" nor "it" has an antecedent. There are no nouns written in the sentence that are antecedents to those pronouns.

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    2. Amy - Okay I undestand now.
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