A pronoun stands in the place of a noun. 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.
There are two pronouns here: its and it. Its and it both have the same antecedent: “a pronoun.” Whenever you use a pronoun, you must also include its antecedent. 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 likes it when people look to him for leadership.
- Trini brushes her hair every morning.
- Billy often has to clean his glasses.
- Kimberly is a gymnast. She has earned several medals in different competitions.
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.
- Billy 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.
There are several types of pronouns, including personal, demonstrative, and indefinite pronouns. Let’s discuss each of these types.
The following sentences give examples of particular types of pronouns used with antecedents:
- Third-person personal pronouns:
- That poor man looks as if he needs a new coat. (the noun phrase that poor man is the antecedent of he)
- Kat arrived yesterday. I met her at the station. (Kat is the antecedent of her)
- When they saw us, the lions began roaring (the lions is the antecedent of they)
- Other personal pronouns in some circumstances:
- Adam and I were hoping no-one would find us. (Adam and I is the antecedent of us)
- You and Aisha can come if you like. (you and Aisha is the antecedent of the second, plural, you)
- Reflexive pronouns:
- Jason hurt himself. (Jason is the antecedent of himself)
- We were teasing each other. (we is the antecedent of each other)
Demonstrative pronouns substitute for things being pointed out. They include this, that, these, and those. This and that are singular; these and those are plural.
The difference between this and that and between these and those is a little more subtle. 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?
- The speaker is indicating a text that is close to her, by using “this.”
- That is not coming anywhere near me.
- The speaker is distancing himself from the object in question, which he doesn’t want to get any closer. The far pronoun helps indicate that.
- You’re telling me you sewed all of these?
- The speaker and her audience are likely looking directly at the clothes in question, so the close pronoun is appropriate.
- Those are all gross.
- The speaker wants to remain away from the gross items in question, by using the far “those.”
Note: these pronouns are often combined with a noun (when this happens, they act as a kind of adjective instead of a pronoun).
- Do I actually have to read all of this contract?
- That thing is not coming anywhere near me.
- You’re telling me you sewed all of these dresses?
- Those recipes are all gross.
The antecedents of demonstrative pronouns 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.
The antecedent for this is the concept of the puppy cam being taken down.
Note: The pronoun it can also have more complex antecedents:
I love Animal Planet’s panda cam. I watched a panda eat bamboo for half an hour. It was amazing.
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.
Read each sentence pair. The pronouns have been bolded. Identify the antecedent.
- I can see forty bracelets. Are you telling me you made all of these?
- I can’t get rid of my country-shaped mugs. Tommy gave those to me for my birthday!
- Have I seen the video of a skateboard-riding bulldog? I showed that to you last week!
- He’s been talking for over two hours. This is unbearable.
- The antecedent is forty bracelets.
- The antecedent is country-shaped mugs.
- The antecedent is the video of a skateboard-riding bulldog.
- The antecedent is the experience of him talking for over two hours.
Indefinite pronouns, the largest group of pronouns, refer to one or more unspecified persons or things, for example: Anyone can do that. The table below shows the most common indefinite pronouns:
These pronouns can be used in a couple of different ways:
- They can refer to members of a group separately rather than collectively. (To each his or her own.)
- They can indicate the non-existence of people or things. (Nobody thinks that.)
- They can refer to a person, but are not specific as to first, second or third person in the way that the personal pronouns are. (One does not clean one’s own windows.)
Please note that all of these pronouns are singular. Look back at the example “To each his or her own.” Saying “To each their own” would be incorrect, since their is a plural pronoun and each is singular. We’ll discuss this in further depth in Text: Antecedent Agreement.
Note: Sometimes third-person personal pronouns are sometimes used without antecedents—this applies to special uses such as dummy pronouns and generic they, as well as cases where the referent is implied by the context.
- You know what they say.
- It’s a nice day today.