In order to think about “antecedent clarity,” you’ll need to be comfortable with the relationship of pronouns to nouns. Here’s a quick reminder of those concepts:
Anna decided at the beginning of Anna’s first semester at Geneseo that Anna would run for thirty minutes every day. Anna knew that Anna would be taking a literature course with a lot of reading, so along with buying print copies of all the novels Anna’s professor assigned, Anna also bought the audiobooks. That way Anna could listen to the audiobooks as Anna ran.
The solution to the awkwardness of this paragraph is to employ pronouns:
Anna decided at the beginning of her first semester at Geneseo that she would run for thirty minutes every day. She knew that she would be taking a literature course with a lot of reading, so along with buying hard copies of all the novels her professor assigned, Anna also bought the audiobooks. That way she could listen to them as she ran.
This second paragraph is more natural. Instead of repeating nouns multiple times (in this case, one example of the subset of nouns known as “proper nouns,” which name a person or place: “Anna”), we were able to use pronouns in many (but not all!) places. A pronoun replaces a noun, and because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing. This noun is called the antecedent. Let’s look at the two sentences we just read again:
- Because a pronoun is replacing a noun, its meaning is dependent on the noun that it is replacing. This noun is called an antecedent.
The pronoun it, in two forms (Its and it), has the antecedent “a pronoun.” Whenever you use a pronoun, you must also include an antecedent noun. Without the antecedent, your readers (or listeners) won’t be able to figure out what the pronoun is referring to. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- Jason’s classmates look to him for leadership.
- Trini attends her psych lab every Tuesday morning.
- Sean often has to reorganize his lab reports.
- Kimberly is a Presidential Scholar. She has presented several papers at different undergraduate Communications conferences.
So, what are the antecedents and pronouns in these sentences?
- Jason is the antecedent for the pronoun him.
- Trini is the antecedent for the pronoun her.
- Sean is the antecedent for the pronoun his.
- Kimberly is the antecedent for the pronoun she.
Identify the antecedent in the following examples:
- The bus is twenty minutes late today, like it always is.
- I would never be caught dead wearing boot sandals. They are an affront to nature.
- The bus is the antecedent for the pronoun it.
- boot sandals is the antecedent for the pronoun they.
We’ve already defined an antecedent as the noun (or phrase) that a pronoun is replacing. The phrase antecedent clarity simply means that it should be clear to whom or what the pronoun is referring. In other words, readers should be able to understand the sentence the first time they read it—not the third, fourth, or tenth time, or only after they have had to go backwards to reread the previous sentence. Our opening example about Anna and her audiobooks feel belabored because we can all grasp its concepts and its vocabulary easily: we were ready to move to pronouns after the first sentence. Most college-level writing is more sophisticated than the narrative about Anna, however, so we need some additional nuance about antecedent clarity.
When writers are new to a field, they sometimes do not achieve antecedent clarity because they worry that if they repeat the key terms in full rather than moving quickly to pronouns, they will irritate an expert reader; for example, students imagine their professor as their only reader, and don’t want to tell an expert what surely is old news. But the inexperienced writers also do not want to seem unfamiliar with a concept themselves. Put another way, they think that they will signal to their readers a lack of certainty about a term if they keep spelling it out in full. Imagine that you had never before encountered the term chiaroscuro, but now you have to write about it. Knowing that your instructor is familiar with the term, and not wanting to seem uncertain about it, you write something like,
Chiaroscuro is a term that describes the contrast of dark and light paint to create three-dimensionality. We are familiar with its dramatic effects, as when Rembrandt employs it, but it is not always clear whether it is useful because it can seem too much like a spotlight. Sometimes that creates a dramatic effect but sometimes it is a distraction because it might shift the viewer’s focus to the interplay of dark and light rather than keeping it on the subject of the painting.
Because the writers relies too much on abstract and unclear pronouns, writing like this feels anxious, which is probably the opposite of the writer’s intended effect. And, almost inevitably, what “it” refers to in here is not just chiaroscuro: think about the “it” in “it is not always clear” (for a moment, the “clear” vocabulary does suggest that the writer is still referring to chiaroscuro, and then we realize that’s not the case) or when “it” starts to refer to “the viewer’s focus.” Not providing antecedent clarity pushes more responsibility for making sense of the passage onto the reader, but the writer really should take – and want – the bulk of the responsibility.
An inverse issue with antecedent clarity is what cognitive scientist Steven Pinker calls “the curse of knowledge.” Here is the curse of knowledge in action, described in attention-grabbing terms as a form of stupidity:
The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it’s often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it. I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment, and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I’m talking about. / Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. 
Writers almost inevitably suffer from the curse of knowledge: if you have thought hard enough about something to have generated several pages of analytical writing on it, or to have researched the larger scholarly conversation on it, you know quite a lot about it. If you have thought about that topic in sophisticated ways and have focused precisely on an issue, you may well know more about your particular topic than your instructor, let alone your peers. In this very common situation, writers misjudge how clearly they are writing because they cannot escape their own knowledge on the topic (hence the “curse” of being trapped). They write about how they understand their argument, rather than writing to a readership who wants to learn. You might have already perceived that as well as being a problem of clarity that can be addressed through some grammatical concepts like antecedent clarity (assuming erroneously that everyone knows what you’re talking about as you build your intricate tower of an argument), the curse of knowledge explains why even the most diligent proofreading of your own essay will not catch a huge problem like the curse of knowledge. You need a reader who exists outside your own brain if you really want to make that move from writing about something to writing to your readers, but it’s that “writing to” that helps you join the generous and energizing give-and-take of a scholarly conversation rather than simply displaying what you know.
Bearing in mind how clear antecedents relate to Pinker’s Curse of Knowledge can help you shift from writing about something to writing to your audience. Knowing yourself what you mean isn’t the point of writing academically; help others to know what you’re talking about.
Here are 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 changing his INTD 105 presentation.
When you first read this sentence, is it clear if the presentation is 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 presentation is being changed (at least from this sentence).
How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.
- Rafael told Matt to stop changing Rafael’s presentation.
- Matt was changing Rafael’s presentation, so Rafael told him to stop it.
What if the presentation is Matt’s?:
- Rafael told Matt to stop changing Matt’s presentation.
- Matt was changing his own presentation when Rafael told him to stop.
These aren’t the only ways to revise the sentence. However, each of these new sentences has made it clear whose INTD 105 presentation it is.
Let’s take a look at another example:
Zuly was really excited to try French cuisine on her semester abroad in Europe. They make all sorts of delicious things.
When you read this example, is it apparent who the pronoun they is referring to? You may guess that they is referring to the French—which is probably correct. However, this is not actually stated, which means that there isn’t actually an antecedent. Since every pronoun needs an antecedent, the example needs to be revised to include one.
How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.
- Zuly was really excited to try French cuisine on her semester abroad in Europe. The French make all sorts of delicious things.
- Zuly was really excited to try the cuisine in France on her semester abroad in Europe. The French make all sorts of delicious things.
- Zuly was really excited to try French cuisine on her semester abroad in Europe. The people there make all sorts of delicious things.
- One of the things Zuly was really excited about on her semester abroad in Europe was trying French cuisine. It comprises all sorts of delicious things.
Balancing your own confidence in the topic, your awareness of key terms, and the curse of knowledge, how would you manage the nouns and pronouns in the following example?:
In (Keynes’s / his) seminal text, (Keynes / he) asserts that governments ought to intervene when circulation comes to a halt, but that is not to say (Keynes / he) is opposed to the economic structure of capitalism; rather, (Keynes / he) simply values checks and balances in times of crisis.
Here are a couple more situations where college-level writing often lacks antecedent clarity. The first is when the pronoun is demonstrative. Demonstrative pronouns substitute for things being pointed out. They include this, that, these, and those.
This and these refer to something that is “close” to the speaker, whether this closeness is physical, emotional, or temporal. That and those are the opposite: they refer to something that is “far.”
- Do I actually have to read all of this by tomorrow?
- By using “this,” the speaker is indicating a text that is close by.
- That dissected fish is not coming anywhere near me.
- The speaker is distancing herself from the object in question, which she doesn’t want to come any closer. The far pronoun helps indicate that.
- You’re telling me you guessed all of these correct answers?
- The speaker and the audience are likely looking directly at the answers in question, so the close pronoun is appropriate.
- Those paintings are all really derivative of Picasso.
- The speaker gestures towards a wider group by using the far “those.”
The antecedents of demonstrative pronouns (and sometimes the pronoun it) can be more complex than those of personal pronouns.
- Animal Planet’s puppy cam has been taken down for maintenance. I never wanted this to happen.
- I love Animal Planet’s panda cam. I watched a panda eat bamboo for half an hour. It was amazing.
In the first example, the antecedent for this is the concept of the puppy cam being taken down. In the second example, the antecedent for it in this sentence is the experience of watching the panda. That antecedent isn’t explicitly stated in the sentence, but comes through in the intention and meaning of the speaker.
In the following sentences, determine if this, that, these, or those should be used.
- Tyesha looked at her meal in front of her. “____ looks great!” she said.
- Lara watched the ’67 Mustang drive down the street. “What I wouldn’t give for one of ____.”
- “What do you think of ____?” Ashley asked, showing me the three paint samples she had picked out.
- Tyesha looked at her meal in front of her. “This looks great!” she said.
- The meal is right in front of Tyesha, and there is only one meal. This is the correct pronoun.
- Lara watched the ’67 Mustang drive down the street. “What I wouldn’t give for one of those.”
- The Mustang is far away (and getting further away as it drives off). The phrase “one of ____” requires a plural word in the blank. Those is the correct pronoun. A singular version of the sentence would be something like “What I wouldn’t give to own that.” That is the correct pronoun for singular things that are far away.
- “What do you think of these?” Ashley asked, showing me the three paint samples she had picked out.
- The paint samples are in immediate focus (whether Ashley is holding them or looking at them online), and there are three of them. These is the correct pronoun.
But notice that all those examples rely on direct speech and real-life interaction. When I discuss paint samples with you, I know that you can see exactly what I’m talking about, so I don’t need to say, “What do you think of these paint samples?” You don’t have the convenience of shared time and space when you are communicating via writing, however, and you’re probably discussing ideas more complex than selecting paint samples if you’re writing a college-level analytical essay, so you typically do need to pair your demonstrative pronoun with the noun or phrase it refers to, at least frequently if not all of the time. Inexperienced academic writers worry that they will sound redundant if they repeat their nouns rather than using pronouns, or if they pair demonstrative pronouns with the concept being demonstrated. In fact, because you’re demanding a lot of mental effort from your reader to follow an argument across 5-10 pages, not 5-10 spoken words, your readers will thank you for reassuring them often in your writing that your key terms haven’t changed, you haven’t become abstract in your argument, and you aren’t expecting the readers themselves to hold all your key terms in their minds while you systematically offer up only pronouns because you know that you’re still discussing the same “oxygen transport by hemoglobin in the blood” you always were.
Another place to be careful about antecedent clarity is in the topic sentences of paragraphs. One function of topic sentences is to transition from the previous paragraph to a related new idea. You might think that because you just wrote a paragraph on oxygen transport by hemoglobin in the blood and are ready to move now to introducing the relevant protein structures that you can safely refer to oxygen transport by hemoglobin in the blood as “it” or “this concept” in your new topic sentence. But topic sentences have to pull your readers across some serious white space on the page and in their minds: when readers finish a paragraph, they expect to be done with that paragraph’s topic, so it’s a very good idea to reiterate the key noun or phrase in full when you launch into how it’s related to what you want to focus on next.
Reading an academic essay is cognitively demanding. Frequently reiterate key terms in full rather than over-relying on pronouns, especially in topic sentences where you need readers to recall your previous point clearly in order to move cohesively to your next point.
To make that concept of reiterating your key terms feel tangible, imagine a professor writing a two-page letter of recommendation for you. The professor is talking about only you in the letter: there are paragraphs on your stellar classroom performance, and your willingness to revise, and your appearances at undergraduate conferences, and your excellent community service projects – but the professor never writes your name again after the first sentence. Never repeating key terms in full (here, the proper noun that is your name) wastes the opportunity to really make a memorable impression on that potential employer of yours. Academic essays work the same way: restate your key terms!
As you write, then, keep these three things in mind:
- Make sure your pronouns always have an antecedent.
- Make sure that it is clear what their antecedents are.
- Make sure you regularly restate the antecedent in full to keep your key terms vivid.
- Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style p. 59 ↵