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Antecedents - Placement of Pronouns

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Before we discuss the other types of pronouns, let’s pause and discuss the concept of pronoun antecedents.

When you use a pronoun, it will typically refer to a word somewhere close by. That is, the noun the pronoun replaces sits somewhere in the vicinity. This noun is called the antecedent.

The prefix ante (meaning before) might make you think that the word the pronoun refers to necessarily comes before the pronoun. But it doesn’t.

True, a pronoun looks backward to its antecedent, but it can also look ahead to a referent placed later in the sentence.

The backward-looking pronouns are called anaphoric pronouns.

But a cataphoric (forward-looking) pronoun would find its referent coming later in the sentence:

After his discovery of New Zealand, Captain Cook went on to discover several Pacific islands. (This example appears in New Fowler, p. 134.)

Unfortunately, many writers do not know they may use forward-looking pronouns and thus rob themselves of an interesting variation in their styles.

No rule states that a pronoun must refer to the immediately preceding noun.

Furthermore, many writers develop very awkward styles because they have heard that pronouns must always refer to the most recent noun in the sentence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Read and learn from Mr. Burchfield, the editor of New Fowler. He states the rule on placing pronouns:

It is clearly desirable that an anaphoric or cataphoric pronoun should be placed as near as the construction allows to the noun or noun phrase to which it refers, and in such a manner that there is no risk of ambiguity. New Fowler, p. 629.

Again, no rule states that a pronoun must refer to the immediately preceding noun.

Indeed, Mr. Burchfield’s sentence itself confirms that the pronoun need not refer to the immediately preceding noun. Look at the antecedent (bold italic underlined) and all the other nouns (bold italic) coming between the antecedent and the ensuing pronoun (bold):

It is clearly desirable that an anaphoric or cataphoric pronoun should be placed as near as the construction allows to the noun or noun phrase to which it refers, and in such a manner that there is no risk of ambiguity.

The antecedent to the word it is the word pronoun, yet three singular nouns come in between: construction, noun, and noun phrase. But the reader knows that it refers to the word pronoun.

Thus, the rule governing placement emphasizes the avoidance of ambiguity. No one can think that the statement to which it refers points to any of the three nouns (1) construction, (2) noun, or (3) noun phrase. The word it can refer only to the word pronoun.

Clarity reigns, and the reader is satisfied.

 

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