Pronoun Reference

In this cartoon, the student explains to his teacher that he understands what a possessive pronoun is by substituting the “i” in iPod with other possessive pronouns: “your” and “their.” The teacher is not impressed.

Source: “IPod, yourPod, theirPod?,” Marty Bucella,

Pronoun-antecedent agreement is just part of the story. Pronoun reference errors have nothing to do with number, person, and gender; instead, they occur when there is confusion about an antecedent. For good pronoun reference, you should make sure that the antecedent of a pronoun is clearly stated and that a pronoun can’t possibly refer to more than one antecedent. While agreement problems are rather specific, reference problems are more a matter of style and logic. Following these three suggestions will help you edit your writing for better pronoun reference.

1. Avoid ambiguous pronoun reference. Look at the pronoun reference errors in these sentences. Think about how you would improve each sentence by rewording it, with or without the pronoun. One way to fix sentences like these is to substitute a noun for the pronoun. Doing that will make the pronoun reference clear, but the sentence may sound a bit repetitive.

Using your notes, write at least two ways to correct this sentence:

Check Your Understanding Sample Response:

Nathan told Ryan that Ryan needed to buy a new car. (replaced pronoun with a noun, as mentioned in the paragraph above the sentences)

Nathan suggested that Ryan buy a new car. (reworded without pronoun)

Nathan told Ryan, “You need to buy a new car.” (made into a quote without pronoun)

Nathan asked Ryan if he was going to buy a new car. (reworded but kept the pronoun)


2. Never use the vague pronouns this, that, which, or it without a clearly stated noun or pronoun antecedent. When you’re editing your work for vague pronoun reference, be sure that each time you used one of these four pronouns, you were clear about which word is the antecedent.

Using your notes, write two possible ways to correct the sentence that follows. When you are finished, check your understanding.

Check Your Understanding


Sample Response:

I was unpatriotic because I didn’t go to the July 4th parade. (no pronoun so don’t need antecedent)
I did not attend the July 4th parade. My laziness was unpatriotic. (replaced pronoun with a noun)



3. Be careful using you and they as indefinite pronouns because such improper use results in reference problems where no clear antecedent can be found. (By the way, when we use the second-person pronoun you in these lessons, we are using the word correctly because we actually are addressing you, the student who is reading the lesson.)

Using your notes, write one possible way to correct each sentence above. When you are finished, check your understanding.

Check Your Understanding

Sample Response:

The lady in the ticket office said the concert was sold out. (no pronoun so no antecedent)
A student has to be a magician to figure out how to get an A in calculus. (no pronoun so no antecedent)