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Arts & Letters Daily


Grammar Tutorial – Pronouns and Antecedents

In this Tutorial we discover what pronouns do. As in the other Lessons on pronouns, I will stick with personal pronouns. In fact, I will stay with one kind of personal pronouns … pronouns used as the subject of a sentence.
So, what do pronouns do? They stand for nouns that name persons, places or things. These nouns are called antecedents. Look at the following examples:
  • John is an excellent student. He won several awards. (‘He’ is a pronoun that refers to the proper noun ‘John’ which is the antecedent.
  • John cut himself with that sharp knife. It cut deep. (‘himself’ is a pronoun that refers to the proper noun ‘John’ and ‘It’ is a pronoun that refers to the noun ‘knife’.)
  • Janet and my sister are best friends. They spend a lot of time together. (The pronoun ‘my’ does not require an antecedent; the pronoun ’they’ refers to ‘Janet and my sister’ which are the antecedents.)
When the meaning of the pronoun is clearly understood, no antecedent is required. That’s why first and second personal pronouns (I, my, me, mine, we, our, ours, you, your, yours) do not require antecedents.
  • I enjoyed vacationing at the seashore with my family. (No antecedent required for the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘my’.)
  • You should protect your eyes from direct sunlight. (No antecedent required for the pronouns ‘you’ and ’your’.)

    Pronoun/Antecedent Problems

I must draw your attention to four pronoun/antecedent problems. These are problems frequently missed by the writer but they can, and often do, confuse the reader. Here they are.
Problem number 1. Sometimes the writer forgets to mention the antecedent the pronoun. For example:
–         He expects his students to turn in their essays on time. He makes no exceptions! [What is the antecedent to ‘He’? The writer does not tell us. The solution is quite simple – replace the first pronoun ‘He’ with ‘professor’. Now the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in the second sentence is quite clear … it refers to the antecedent ‘professor’. Notice that the pronoun ‘their’ has an antecedent – ‘students’.]
–         After many years, they returned to their homeland. [What is the antecedent for ‘they’ and ‘their’? Again, the writer does not tell us. If the noun ‘settlers’ replaces the first pronoun ‘they’, the sentence would be quite clear. The second pronoun ‘their’ now has an antecedent ‘settlers’.]
Problem number 2. Sometimes the writer places the antecedent far away from the pronoun. For example:
–         The agitated Principal stood up to face the angry student and insisted that he would not take any more abuse from him. [What is the antecedent of ‘him’ – ‘Principal’ of ‘student’? Normally, the noun closest to the pronoun is the antecedent. However, in this sentence, the antecedent of ‘he’ probably is ‘Principal’. The sentence is somewhat confusing because the antecedent is far away from the pronoun. How might this problem be resolved? Here is one suggestion; ‘The agitated Principal, insisting that he would not take any more abuse, stood up to face the angry student.’
Problem number 3. Sometimes writers place the antecedent AFTER the pronoun. The reader encounters a pronoun but cannot know what it stands for, its antecedent is missing. Only later does the reader discover the antecedent. That’s confusing and frustrating for the reader. For example;
–         If you find it, return the ball to Billy. [In this sentence, the pronoun ‘it’ refers to antecedent ‘ball’. As a reader, I discover the antecedent AFTER I read the pronoun ‘it’. Again that can be confusing and certainly frustrating for readers. Placing the pronoun before its antecedent is like ‘putting the cart before the horse’. This sentence can be corrected quite easily by reversing ‘it’ and ‘ball’ like this -‘ If you find the ball, return it to Billy.’
Problem number 4. Sometimes sentences are filled with so many nouns, that the reader has to slow down to determine which noun goes with which pronoun. Once again, as a writer make the text as reader friendly as possible! Look at this problem sentence.
–         Bob’s new car includes surround sound stereo, pale blue interior, leather upholstery and adjustable bucket seats. It seats 5 passengers comfortably. Which of the four nouns –car, stereo, interior, upholstery, and bucket seats – does the pronoun ‘it’ refer to? Since, ‘bucket sets’ is the closest noun, ‘it might be the antecedent. However, probably, ‘car, is the antecedent in this sentence even though it is the farthest away from the pronoun ‘it’. This sentence would require a revision such as – Bob’s new roomy five passenger car includes surround sound stereo, pale blue interior, leather upholstery and adjustable bucket seats’; or Bob’s new car, which seats 5 passengers comfortably, includes surround sound stereo, pale blue interior, leather upholstery and adjustable bucket seats. These options remove the need to use the pronoun ‘it’.
We learned a lot about personal pronouns in Lesson 10. Review the following Chart which summarized personal pronouns.
Try the following activities to find out how well you understand how to use pronouns and antecedents:
After you have watched this Lesson, go to, for the NOTES, ASSIGNMENT and ANSWER KEY on PRONOUNS AND ANTECEDENTS.
Go to GRAMMAR in the top navigation bar; go to PRONOUNS and move to the right to PRONOUNS AND ANTECEDENTS – click on it.
To send any questions you may have about grammar, go to and click on ASK Dr. OTTO. I will reply to your questions as quickly as possible.


First person – the person speaking
  • Singular I, my, me, mine, myself
  • Plural – we, our, us, ours, ourselves
Second person – the person spoken to
  • Singular – you, your, yours, yourself
  • Plural – you, your, yours, yourselves
Third person – person, place or thing spoken about
  • Singular male – he, him, his, himself
  • Singular female – she, her, hers, herself
  • Singular neuter – it, its, itself
  • Plural male and female – they, them, themselves, their
  • Plural neuter – they, them, themselves, their