How to Identify Pronouns and Their Antecedents

Identifying pronouns and their antecedents is a prerequisite to good writing.
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Pronouns are words that denote nouns, such as when you use "he" to refer to your dad. The antecedent is the word the pronoun refers to, and these two parts of speech are fundamental components of the English language. It's pretty easy to identify pronouns and antecedents in simple sentences, but as sentences become more complex -- or when sentences are poorly written -- the process gets more challenging.

1 Understanding Pronouns

Pronouns are words that have no meaning without context. For example, the sentence "She went there" means nothing unless you know who she is and where there is located. While memorizing a list of pronouns -- which includes words such as he, she, it, they, those, me and I -- can help, the simplest way to locate a pronoun is to find a word that doesn't make sense without consulting the rest of the sentence or paragraph.

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2 Introducing the Antecedent

An antecedent has to be introduced before a pronoun can be used. "Ashley gave me a pen, and then she left" introduces Ashley and then uses me, because it is obvious that pronouns such as me and I refer to the speaker. In most cases, the antecedent will be used a sentence or two before the pronoun and may be repeated -- alternating with the pronoun -- for the duration of the piece you read. Pronouns have to agree with their antecedent in terms of person, quantity and gender. Consequently, "it" can never refer to a person, "he" can never refer to a woman and "those" never refers to a single item.

3 Hidden Antecedents

Some writers only introduce an antecedent once and then continually use a pronoun. This can help foster familiarity with a character, but it can also be the product of amateur writing. When this happens, you have to use context clues to deduce who "she" or "he" is. Scanning the piece you're reading to find the last mention of a specific noun can also help you to locate a hiding antecedent.

4 Multiple Pronouns

Sometimes writers use multiple pronouns that can refer to more than one person or object. For example, "Shelly said to Suzie that she liked her painting" is unclear. This is often the product of poor writing, and in such cases, it can be impossible to deduce the antecedent. Fortunately, context clues can be helpful. In this case, since Shelly is doing the talking, it's likely that Shelly is the one who is giving Suzie the information that she likes the painting.

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.