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Ambiguous Pronoun References

For practice with pronouns and antecedents, review the examples below. Then answer the questions, and check your answers at the end.

Review 

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence (he, she, them, it). Pronouns are convenient words; without them we would have to continually repeat the noun every time we wanted to talk about it, which would quickly become tedious. For example:

Trish is a soprano who sings with the Opera Company. Trish likes dogs and long walks on the beach. Trish has two children, Anne and Stephen. Trish, Anne, and Stephen all adore their dog, Sparky.

Pronouns are confusing, however, when the nouns they refer to are not clear. Confusing elements in text are very distracting and potentially misleading. For example, if you say, “He really likes her,” you haven’t passed on any useful information. The reader does not know to whom the word her refers. The term for what a pronoun refers to is antecedent. Without an antecedent, a pronoun is confusing.

Martin thinks Jennifer has a great personality. He really likes her.

Now our confusing sentence above is clear because we know the antecedents.  Martin is the antecedent of he, and Jennifer is the antecedent of her.

A pronoun must always agree with its antecedent. Consider this example:

My parents grow corn and squash in his garden.

This sentence contains an example of nonagreement of subject and pronoun. The singular possessive pronoun his is used incorrectly because it refers to the plural antecedent parents. The sentence should read like this:

My parents grow corn and squash in their garden.

The plural pronoun their correctly refers to the plural word parents.

An ambiguous pronoun reference is one in which the antecedent is not clear. Take the following sentences for example:

Ambiguous Reference:

After I go to the store, I’ll drive over to pick her up.

Who is her? Unless the antecedent appeared earlier in the text, this is an ambiguous reference.

Clear Reference:

Cynthia, our CEO, decided to increase funds for product research. She hopes this will increase her company’s profitability.

No problem here. She and her refer to Cynthia.

Ambiguous Reference:

The mail carrier had a delivery for her, but he couldn’t make it to the door because he was barking very viciously.

Who was barking—the mail carrier? And who is she? This sentence needs clarification.

Clear Reference:

The mail carrier had a delivery for Alice, but he couldn’t make it to the door because the dog, Sparky, was barking very viciously.

Questions

Read the sentences below. If the sentence is clear, write Correct on your paper. If the sentence is unclear, write the ambiguous pronouns on your paper.

  1. John and Melissa wanted to buy concert tickets, but they were all sold out.

  2. There was no way he could have possibly understood her comments.

  3. Aaron saw it but didn’t have time to hit the brakes. He went limping off into the trees after he finally came to a stop.

  4. After it scratched at the door to be let in, she poured a bowl of milk.

  5. Henry saw that Gina looked sick, so he sent her home. She was thankful her boss was so compassionate.

  6. The climb looked easy, but Pedro’s hands sweated so much he couldn’t stay on the rock. Luckily his partner had pulled the slack out of the rope.

  7. They all wanted to see the show, but he wouldn’t let them in. She was frustrated that they had arrived ten minutes late.

  8. Even though Madison is a dog, she doesn’t like bones. He tried to give her one, but she refused.

  9. She knew she sat on the admissions board, but she still thought her application lacked something.

  10. I know you like him, so I’ll introduce you tomorrow night.

Answers

Ambiguous pronouns are underlined in the sentences below.

  1. John and Melissa wanted to buy concert tickets, but they were all sold out. Correct.

  2. There was no way he could have possibly understood her comments.

  3. Aaron saw it but didn’t have time to hit the brakes. He went limping off into the trees after he finally came to a stop.

  4. After it scratched at the door to be let in, she poured a bowl of milk.

  5. Henry saw that Gina looked sick, so he sent her home. She was thankful her boss was so compassionate. Correct.  

  6. The climb looked easy, but Pedro’s hands sweated so much he couldn’t stay on the rock. Luckily his partner had pulled the slack out of the rope. Correct.  

  7. They all wanted to see the show, but he wouldn’t let them in. She was frustrated that they had arrived ten minutes late.

  8. Even though Madison is a dog, she doesn’t like bones. He tried to give her one, but she refused.

  9. She knew she sat on the admissions board, but she still thought her application lacked something.

  10. I know you like him, so I’ll introduce you tomorrow night.

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