The antecedent and the pronoun.
When using a pronoun in a sentence, we need to be sure the reader clearly knows who or what the pronoun is referring to (the antecedent). Let’s look at some examples.
Two ladies and a coat.
Sue gave her coat to Jane because she needed a warmer one.
So, who needed the warmer coat—Sue or Jane?
The pronoun she refers to the closest noun, which is the antecedent, so the answer would be Jane. If, however, Sue needed the warmer coat, then this sentence would be incorrect. Instead, it could be written this way:
Sue needed a warmer coat, so she gave hers to Jane.
In this sentence we have two antecedents and two pronouns. She refers to Sue, and the possessive pronoun hers refers to coat. The way this sentence is worded lets the reader know that Sue needed the warmer coat.
Let’s go fishing.
Uncle Fred met John down by the lake. He was excited to go fishing.
Who was excited to go fishing, Uncle Fred or John? In this sentence John would be the antecedent, so he is the excited fisherman. But what if Uncle Fred was the one who was eager to fish? Then it would be written this way:
Uncle Fred was excited to go fishing. He met John down by the lake.
If they were both excited to go fishing, then you would write this with a compound antecedent and plural pronoun:
Uncle Fred met John down by the lake. They were excited to go fishing.
He, him, ho-hum.
If the antecedent doesn’t change, you can continue to use the same pronoun as long as it doesn’t become redundant.
George went hiking by himself. He saw three deer and two coyotes. He was careful to be quiet so the animals wouldn’t notice him. After a few hours, he walked back to his campsite. He crawled into his sleeping bag and fell asleep.
Though we don’t need to use George’s name more than once to clarify the pronoun, using he repeatedly makes the text boring and minimizes the character. A good place to use George’s name again would be in the second-to-last sentence.
After a few hours, George walked back to his campsite. He crawled into his sleeping bag and fell asleep.
Pronoun: antecedent agreement.
A singular antecedent needs a singular pronoun.
My mom walks every day so she can get enough exercise.
A plural antecedent needs a plural pronoun.
The children heard the ice cream truck, so they ran outside.
If the gender of the antecedent is unknown, the pronoun can be they (says CMoS).
If the driver can’t come tonight, they will come in the morning.
Which comes first?
The antecedent doesn’t always need to precede the pronoun. To vary your sentences, the antecedent can follow the pronoun, but then it’s technically a postcedent.
When it was her turn to speak, Mary stood up and spoke with confidence.
It was a scary night for him, but Ben managed to stay calm.
When singular common nouns are used, the pronoun is it.
The basketball game was exciting. It went into overtime, and we finally won!
When using a compound antecedent with common nouns, using a pronoun could be confusing. For example:
The protest march and speeches caused chaos in the streets. They made people feel unsafe.
Does they refer to the march and speeches, chaos, or streets?
To clarify the sentence, a noun phrase can be used instead of a pronoun.
The protest march and speeches caused chaos in the streets. These events made people feel unsafe.
Clarity is the key for writers.
As professional writers, we want our writing to be engaging and interesting. We want to dazzle our readers as we carefully and creatively string words together. But as we stive to accomplish this, we need to remember that clarity for the reader is always an important goal. Afterall, we want Auntie Seedent and Uncle Fred to understand who needs the warmer coat and who wants to go fishing.
Crystal Bowman is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than 100 books for children and four nonfiction books for women. She also writes lyrics for children’s piano music and is a monthly contributor to Clubhouse Jr. Magazine. She loves going to schools to teach kids about poetry. She also speaks at MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) groups and teaches workshops at writers’ conferences. When she is not writing or speaking, she enjoys going for walks, working out at the gym, and eating ice cream. She and her husband live in Michigan and have seven huggable grandkids.