We’ve already defined an antecedent as the noun (or phrase) that a pronoun is replacing. The phrase “antecedent clarity” simply means that is should be clear who or what the pronoun is referring to. In other words, readers should be able to understand the sentence the first time they read it—not the third, forth, or tenth. In this page, we’ll look at some examples of common mistakes that can cause confusion, as well as ways to fix each sentence.
Let’s take a look at our first sentence:
Rafael told Matt to stop eating his cereal.
When you first read this sentence, is it clear if the cereal Rafael’s or Matt’s? Is it clear when you read the sentence again? Not really, no. Since both Rafael and Matt are singular, third person, and masculine, it’s impossible to tell whose cereal is being eaten (at least from this sentence).
As you write, make sure that you are using the correct pronouns. When a pronoun matches the person and number of its antecedent, we say that it agrees with it antecedent. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- I hate it when Zacharias tells me what to do. He‘s so full of himself.
- The Finnegans are shouting again. I swear you could hear them from across town!
In the first sentence, Zacharias is singular, third person, and masculine. The pronouns he and himself are also singular, third person, and masculine, so they agree. In the second sentence, the Finnegans is plural and third person. The pronoun them is also plural and third person.
When you select your pronoun, you also need to ensure you use the correct case of pronoun. Remember we learned about three cases: subject, object, and possessive. The case of your pronoun should match its role in the sentence. For example, if your pronoun is doing an action, it should be a subject:
- He runs every morning.
- I hate it when she does this.
However, when something is being done to your pronoun, it should be an object:
- Birds have always hated me.
- My boss wanted to talk to him.
- Give her the phone and walk away.
However, things aren’t always this straightforward. Let’s take a look at some examples where things are a little more confusing.
Person and Number
Some of the trickiest agreements are with indefinite pronouns:
- Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
- If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?
As we learned earlier in this outcome, words like every and nobody are singular, and demand singular pronouns. Here are some of the words that fall into this category:
Some of these may feel “more singular” than others, but they all are technically singular. Thus, using “he or she” is correct (while they is incorrect).
- Anyone going on this hike should plan on being in the canyon for at least seven hours; he or she should prepare accordingly.
- I know somebody has been throwing his or her trash away in my dumpster, and I want him or her to stop.
However, as you may have noticed, the phrase “he or she” (and its other forms) can often make your sentences clunky. When this happens, it may be best to revise your sentences to have plural antecedents. Because “he or she” is clunky, you’ll often see issues like this:
The way each individual speaks can tell us so much about him or her. It tells us what groups they associate themselves with, both ethnically and socially.
As you can see, in the first sentence, him or her agrees with the indefinite pronoun each. However, in the second sentence, the writer has shifted to the plural they, even though the writer is talking about the same group of people. When you write, make sure your agreement is correct and consistent.
You and I versus You and Me
Some of the most common pronoun mistakes occur with the decision between “you and I” and “you and me.” People will often say things like “You and me should go out for drinks.” Or—thinking back on the rule that it should be “you and I”—they will say “Susan assigned the task to both you and I.” However, both of these sentences are wrong. Remember that every time you use a pronoun you need to make sure that you’re using the correct case.
Let’s take a look at the first sentence: “You and me should go out for drinks.” Both pronouns are the subject of the sentence, so they should be in subject case: “You and I should go out for drinks.”
In the second sentence (Susan assigned the task to both you and I), both pronouns are the object of the sentence, so they should be in object case: “Susan assigned the task to both you and me.”