• 3-minute read
  • 30th August 2023

Pronouns and Antecedents

A pronoun, according to Merriam–Webster, is “any of a small set of words … that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases.” So: I, me, him, her, they, we, you, etc.

The noun or noun phrase that a pronoun refers to is known as a referent. When the referent appears before the pronoun, the referent is called the pronoun’s antecedent (Source: MLA).

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about pronouns and antecedents and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.



Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

Antecedents in Practice

A pronoun almost always needs to follow an antecedent so that the meaning of the sentence is clear. Sometimes the antecedent can be implied, such as in “It was a lovely sunny day”).

In the simplest form of the pronoun–antecedent arrangement, you’ll find the pronoun and antecedent in the same sentence:

Buddy likes to swim in the lake, but he has to wear a life jacket.

An antecedent may appear in a previous sentence, as follows:

Buddy likes to swim in the lake, which is calm and clear. However, he isn’t a very good swimmer, so has to wear a life jacket.

Pronoun and Antecedent Problems

Have you ever been editing a document and felt it necessary to write “What is ‘it’ here?” or similar? Then you have come across an antecedent problem. These come in three main forms, all of which should be addressed during the proofreading process.

Missing Referents

This is a pretty easy one to spot; it’s a lonely pronoun with no referent to give it meaning.

They have such a lovely fragrance and look amazing.

Out of context, “they” could be anything: flowers, cakes, a person? If the context provides enough detail to make an edit, then do so; otherwise, leave a comment asking your client to specify who or what “they” are.

Several Antecedents

From no antecedents to an embarrassment of them. This happens when you have more than one noun or noun phrase that the pronoun might refer to:

The door doesn’t fit the gap properly, since it is too big.

What’s too big? Is it the door or the gap? Without context, it’s not possible to say. You could suggest a change if context allows (“Do you mean ‘The door is too big, so it won’t fit in the gap?'”). If the context is no help, just leave a comment bringing the issue to your client’s attention.

Unclear Pronouns

A pronoun can be unclear when it comes before the noun or noun phrase it refers to.

As he headed out to work, Simon noticed that Chris’s shoes were dirty.

This might seem OK, but who is heading out for work: Simon or Chris? Again, if it’s clear from the context, you might want to suggest a change (“Do you mean ‘As his brother headed out for work, Simon noticed that Chris’s shoes were dirty’?”), otherwise leave a comment advising the customer that there’s something they need to resolve.

Recognizing the Issue

Put simply, it you feel the urge to write “What is ‘it’?” or “Who is ‘he’ referring to?” or similar, you’ve got a pronoun and antecedent mismatch and need to do something to resolve it.


Pronouns almost always need to be preceded by an antecedent, and the relationship between the two, in any proofread document, needs to be clear.

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