Style Quiz #12: Unclear Antecedents

By Mark Nichol

Revise each sentence below so that the nouns to which the pronouns refer are obvious.

1. He told his brother that his bicycle had been stolen.

2. I left my coat in the car, but now I can’t find it.

3. If you’ve ever wanted to go there, now is the perfect time to travel to Mexico.

4. For all its faults, the administration regards the regime as an ally in the so-called war on terror.

5. When the ribs can’t pivot or articulate easily in their joints, it dampens the ribs’ ability to expand and lift.

Answers and Explanations

When a sentence does not clearly identify which noun a subsequent pronoun refers to, the error is referred to as an unclear antecedent. (The Latin antecedent of that word, which is a synonym for precedentante means “before” — is antecedens, “what precedes.”) The word the antecedent refers to is called an anaphor, and the antecedent and the anaphor are known as coreferences.

1.
Original: He told his brother that his bicycle had been stolen.
Correct : He told his brother that his own bicycle had been stolen.
Alterna.: He told his brother that the latter’s bicycle had been stolen.

In this sentence, either the person identified as he, or his brother, could be the victim of bicycle theft. Revise the sentence to clarify one way or the other. (Each of the two revisions reflects one of the possibilities.)

2.
Original: I left my coat in the car, but now I can’t find it.
Correct : I left my coat in the car, but I searched the car and can’t find it.
Alterna.: I can’t find my coat. I left it in the car, but now it’s not there.

The convention for pronouns is that they refer to the nearest preceding noun, but that’s obviously the wrong one in this sentence — or is it? One’s first inclination is to identify the coat as the missing item, but it’s possible the car cannot be found, and it is this shadow of a doubt that marks this sentence as a troublesome one.

3.
Original: If you’ve ever wanted to go there, now is the perfect time to travel to Mexico.
Correct : If you’ve ever wanted to travel to Mexico, now is the perfect time to go there.

I heartily recommend structuring sentences for dramatic impact by saving the best for last, but in this case, the reader is left adrift, not knowing until the end of the statement where “there” is. Switch there and the noun it refers to.

4.
Original: For all its faults, the administration regards the regime as an ally in the so-called war on terror.
Correct : The administration regards the regime, for all its faults, as an ally in the so-called war on terror.

This sentence does not clearly identify whether the pronoun in the introductory phrase refers to the administration or to the regime. Its refers to the regime, so that noun should precede the pronoun as shown.

5.
Original: When the ribs can’t pivot or articulate easily in their joints, it dampens the ribs’ ability to expand and lift.
Correct : When the ribs can’t pivot or articulate easily in their joints, this restriction dampens the ribs’ ability to expand and lift.

The antecedent of it — “the inability of the ribs to pivot or articulate easily in their joints” — is too unwieldy to serve that role, so the phrase should be restated with a noun phrase.

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2 Responses to “Style Quiz #12: Unclear Antecedents”

  • Agua Caliente

    The real issue regarding #2, when you get to be around my age, is less about sentence structure than about knowing why you were going to the car in the first place. Then you have to find the car. Once you do that, the loop begins anew. There is more than a little truth in the preceding. (Can i use “preceding” here without stating the preceding what?) Andy, that is a good use of the “to-be-shot-on-sight” passive voice. Thank you.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I fully realize that many grammarians have been conducting an all-out war against the passive voice. However, I think a rare occasion where the passive can help smooth out a sentence occurs in example #5.

    Original: When the ribs can’t pivot or articulate easily in their joints, it dampens the ribs’ ability to expand and lift.

    With passive: The ribs’ ability to expand and lift is dampened when they can’t pivot or articulate easily in their joints.

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