Antecedents

Antecedents

An antecedent is the thing (usually a noun) represented by a pronoun.

Easy Examples of Antecedents

In each example, the pronoun is in bold and its antecedent is underlined.
  • Gail said she will be late.
  • (Gail is the antecedent of the pronoun she.)
  • Tell the professor I'll see him tonight.
  • (The professor is the antecedent of the pronoun him.)
In the examples above, the pronouns (she and him) are both personal pronouns. Spotting an antecedent gets a little trickier with the other types of pronoun.
  • Let Mark do the work himself. (Mark is the antecedent of the emphatic pronoun himself.)
  • Where's the whelk which Lee caught?
  • (The whelk is the antecedent of the relative pronoun which.)
  • Jack and Jill love each other.
  • (Jack and Jill is the antecedent of the reciprocal pronoun each other.)
There is a summary of the different types of pronoun in the pronoun entry.

If there's a pronoun, then there's an antecedent somewhere (usually nearby and to the left).

Sometimes though, the antecedent is not specifically mentioned.
  • Please hide these from Lee.
  • (The antecedent is not mentioned, but it will be understood from context, e.g., the talker might be pointing at some pies.)
  • Make sure Mark has some before Lee arrives.
  • (The antecedent is not mentioned, but it will be understood from context, e.g., the talker might be pointing at a cake.)
Sometimes, the antecedent is a concept.
    The clown was riding a bull, juggling five knives and singing Nessun dorma. That is talent.
Sometimes, the antecedent comes after the pronoun.
  • When he is nervous, the professor develops a stammer.
  • (When an antecedent comes after the pronoun, it's sometimes called a postcedent.)
Sometimes, the antecedent is another pronoun.
  • They hate one another.
  • (The pronoun they is the antecedent of the reciprocal pronoun one another.) Sometimes, pronouns share an antecedent.
  • I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back. (Comedian Henny Youngman)
  • (It's not unusual for different types of pronoun to share an antecedent. Note that a possessive adjective (here, her) is a type of possessive pronoun.)

Real-Life Examples of Antecedents

Antecedents of personal pronouns (e.g., he, they)

  • If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live. (Civil-rights leader Martin Luther King)

Antecedents of possessive pronouns (including possessive adjectives) (e.g., mine, my, his, your, yours)

  • Fear has its use, but cowardice has none. (Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi)
  • (This is a possessive adjective, which is a type of possessive pronoun.)
  • It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs. (Author Thomas Hardy)
  • Help others achieve their dreams, and you will achieve yours. (Author Les Brown)

Antecedents of indefinite pronouns (e.g., none, several)

  • Fear has its use, but cowardice has none. (Gandhi)
  • (This example is also used above. It's not unusual for a sentence to feature multiple pronouns and antecedents.)

Antecedents of reciprocal pronouns (e.g., each other, one another)

  • When people are like each other, they tend to like each other. (Author Tony Robbins)
  • (Note that they is underlined and in bold. That's because they is the antecedent of the second each other but is also a pronoun with its own antecedent (people).)

Antecedents of relative pronouns (e.g., which, where)

  • A meeting is an event where minutes are kept but hours are lost. (Anon)

Antecedents of reflexive pronouns (e.g., himself, itself)

  • A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. (Playwright William Shakespeare)

Antecedents of emphatic pronouns (e.g., himself, itself)

  • Nothing is impossible. The word itself says "I'm possible"! (Actress Audrey Hepburn)

Antecedents of demonstrative pronouns (including demonstrative adjectives) (e.g., this, these)

  • This land, this water, this air, this planet - this is our legacy to our young. (US politician Paul Tsongas)
  • (The first four this's are demonstrative adjectives, which are a type of pronoun. [And, yes, it is sometimes acceptable to use an apostrophe for a plural.] The antecedents of the first four this's [hey, get over it] are not present, but they are understood from context. The antecedent of the fifth this (which is a demonstrative pronoun) is the list of everything that went before.)

Antecedents of interrogative pronouns (e.g., which, who)

  • Who wants to live forever? (Singer Freddie Mercury)
  • (The full antecedent of an interrogative pronoun is something not yet expressed. That's the point. You're asking for the full antecedent. When the interrogative pronoun is who, "an unknown person" is about as much of the antecedent as you can muster before the question is answered.)

Why Should I Care about Antecedents?

If the link between your pronoun and its antecedent is unclear, you will at best cause your readers to stall. At worst, they will misinterpret your text. To portray yourself as a clear thinker, you must ensure the antecedents of your pronouns are obvious.

Below are the two most common ways for the link between a pronoun to its antecedent to fail. (This is sometimes called a faulty pronoun reference.)

(1) There is no link.

  • I want a job in journalism because they make democracy work. [wrong]
  • (The antecedent of they is meant to be journalists, but the word journalists isn't present. This error occurs when writers' fingers work faster than their brains. Usually, the meaning is clear, but such an error will do little to portray you as a clear thinker. A fix? Replace they with journalists.)
  • The pie tin was empty because Lee had eaten it. [wrong]
  • (This is a little untidy because the intended antecedent (pie) is an adjective. Antecedents are meant to be nouns or pronouns, not adjectives. This is quite a technical error, but it's worth a rewrite. "The tin was empty because Lee had eaten the pie" is one option.)
  • The journalist's article reflects his experience. [wrong]
  • (This is a little untidy because the intended antecedent (the journalist) is in the possessive case and therefore acting as an adjective. Remember, antecedents are not meant to adjectives. It's worth a rewrite. "The journalist reflects his experience in the article" is an option.)
  • To deliver oxygen fast to its hard-working muscles, the cheetah's respiratory tract is enlarged. [wrong]
  • (As a standalone sentence, this is untidy because the intended antecedent of its (the cheetah) is a possessive-case adjective. But, you could make a claim for the antecedent being in a previous sentence. Don't though. Try to keep each of your sentences tidy.)
  • She can arrange an interview with myself if there's an issue. [wrong]
  • (The antecedent of myself is always I. Here, the pronoun myself is missing its antecedent. A fix? Replace myself with me.)

(2) The link is ambiguous.

  • Jack told John he was depressed.
  • (This is ambiguous. The antecedent of he could be Jack or John. Note that neither "Jack told Jill he was depressed" nor "Jack told Jill she was depressed" is ambiguous.)
  • The letter from the bosses to the employees gave details of their annual bonuses.
  • (This is ambiguous. Is the antecedent the bosses or the employees? Fix? Spell it out. Replace their with the bosses'.)
  • The icing on the cake was quite intricate, but Lee ate it before the party.
  • (This is ambiguous. Is the antecedent the icing or the cake? Fix? Spell it out. Replace it with the icing.)
  • The villagers pour any leftover mouldy grapes into a horse trough and crush the grapes with unwashed feet. The sludge is then mixed with the local sulphur-rich water. That is why their wine is unpalatable.
  • (Most people would take the antecedent of That to be the whole process described, but the antecedent could feasibly be the use of sulphur-rich water, mouldy grapes, the horse trough or unwashed feet. If there's doubt, spell it out. "This whole process is why their wine is unpalatable" is one option.)
  • It isn't what they say about youit's what they whisper. (Actor Errol Flynn)
  • (This example is not terribly ambiguous, but I have included it to highlight that the pronouns it, they and you are commonly used with implied vague antecedents. Sometimes, it's useful to leave the antecedents as vague, but sometimes it's worth spelling them out. In this example, the antecedents could be as follows: it (what matters or what matters to me), they (the media, cinema goers, people or my peers) and you (you, the reader,, others or me). This could have been rewritten as What matters to me isn't what my peers say about meit's what they whisper.)
Using it, they or you with an implied vague antecedent is common in speech, and it's a pretty efficient way of making a point. It won't portray you as a clear thinker though. In formal writing, use more direct words.
  • It said in the newspaper that a great white shark had been spotted off Cornwall.
  • (A possible fix: "According to the newspaper, a great white shark has been spotted off Cornwall.")
  • They reckon its going to rain all week.
  • (A possible fix: "The BBC weather forecast said it was going to rain all week.")
  • You can't buy normal lightbulbs these days.
  • (A possible fix: "Shops don't sell normal lightbulbs these days.")

Key Points

  • Whenever you use a pronoun, do a quick check to ensure its antecedent is present and obvious. (Be particularly alert with sentences that start with a demonstrative adjective like This or That.)
  • Reword any sentence that includes an antecedent acting as an adjective (including nouns in the possessive case).
Home Page Mathematics Monster Cyber Definitions Grammar Monster