5. Ambiguous Antecedents : WAKE Editing Articles and Advice
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5. Ambiguous Antecedents

by Weston Kincade on 11/23/13

Ambiguous antecedents are inconsistencies between pronouns and the nouns they refer to. For a reader, sometimes this can be confusing or lead to an unintentional, comedic interpretation. Either way, it will force the reader to stop, halting the flow of the plot and storyline. This isn’t something you want. As a writer, you want your reader to flow through the book, hooked and unable to set it aside.


Ambiguous Antecedents Example

IncorrectAfter sampling the delectable cheesecake, I couldn’t help but indulge and dug in with my spoon until it disappeared.

This is a complex sentence, but a format writers commonly use. Especially with more complicated sentences, one must be careful not to confuse the pronouns and their antecedents. The pronouns used in this sentence are I and it. The problematic one is it. There are two ways the sentence could be interpreted:

1. The pronoun it could be referring to the antecedent cheesecake. This is the intended meaning, that the cheesecake disappeared.

2. However, confusion can occur here because some readers may first associate the pronoun it with the antecedent spoon. In this case, the spoon disappearing isn’t as likely and might even be humorous, creating an expectation that the reader would choke on it.


Ambiguous Antecedents Solution

The simplest solution in this instance is to take the unnecessary statement of what utensil was used out. The reader probably doesn’t need to know specifically that a fork was used to eat the cheesecake, so the revised sentence would read:

CorrectAfter sampling the delectable cheesecake, I couldn’t help but indulge and dug in until it disappeared.


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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