4. Missing Antecedents : WAKE Editing Articles and Advice
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4. Missing Antecedents

by Weston Kincade on 11/17/13

Missing Antecedents (the subject the pronoun is referring to) can be very confusing to readers. It’s what English teachers often call a pronoun-antecedent agreement error.

 

Missing Antecedent Example

Consider this sentence:

IncorrectBob asked Tim if he would mind taking out the trash before locking it up.

Upon reading this sentence, you are probably thinking, locking what up? You would be right.

 

Missing Antecedent Solution

He and it are the pronouns used in this sentence, but only one is a pronoun-antecedent agreement error, it. The subject is missing. There are two likely causes: 1, the antecedent is not mentioned, or 2, the antecedent could be in the previous sentence (not ideal, but it does happen). If I had included a sentence in the above example prior to Bob’s request, then the antecedent might be a bit clearer:

Correct (but could be better) – The coworkers flicked off the lights in the shop, ready to end the long day. Bob asked Tim if he would mind taking out the trash before locking it up.

 

Additional Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Problems

In the example above, we still have a bit of confusion. Some readers could read it as referring to the trash. (This type of error is known as Ambiguous Antecedents. For more information, follow the link to the right.) The best way to clear this up would be to simply restate the shop. Unfortunately, mentioning the shop twice in two sentences is a bit repetitive. To avoid this and solve the confusion problem, try a slightly different subject, a synonym, or getting rid of the pronoun altogether.

For instance, here are two correct examples. Either would work:

CorrectBob asked Tim if he would mind taking out the trash before locking the security door.

CorrectBob asked Tim if he would mind taking out the trash before locking up.

 

For more explanations of common pronoun-antecedent agreement errors, try the following articles.

 

Common Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Errors

1. Singular-Plural Inconsistency

2. Singular Indefinite Pronoun Inconsistency

3. Gender Inconsistency

4. Missing Antecedents

5. Ambiguous Antecedents

6. Pronoun-Antecedent Order

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