Unclear Pronoun Reference
A pronoun must refer to a specific noun (the antecedent). Ambiguous pronoun reference creates confusing sentences.
Example: A key difference between banking crises of today and of yesterday is that they have greater global consequences. (Which crises have greater consequences, those of today or those of yesterday?)
If a whiff of ambiguity exists, use a noun: A key difference between banking crises of today and yesterday is that today’s crises have greater global impact.
Vague Subject Pronoun
Pronouns such as it, there, and this often make weak subjects. Use a pronoun as subject only when its antecedent is crystal clear.
Example: Pope Gregory VII forced Emperor Henry IV to wait three days in the snow at Canossa before granting him an audience. It was a symbolic act. (To what does “it” refer? Forcing the emperor to wait? The waiting? The granting of the audience? The audience? The entire sentence?)
A pronoun must agree in gender and number with its antecedent. A common error is the use of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular noun.
Example: In the original state constitution, they allowed polygamy. [They (plural) refers to constitution (singular).]
REVISED: The original state constitution allowed polygamy.
It is often better to use a plural noun and pronoun than to use a singular noun and pronoun. Note that indefinite pronouns such as each and everyone are singular.
Example: Each student must meet with their advisor. (incorrect: singular noun, plural pronoun)
Example: Each student must meet his or her advisor. (correct but awkward)
REVISED: Students must meet with their advisors. (correct: plural noun and pronoun)
Developing the ability to communicate in a clear, organized, and effective way is a central goal of a liberal arts education — and a prerequisite for a successful career. That’s why we established centers for writing and speaking.
Office / Department Name
Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
Writing Center Director