ambiguous-pronoun_blog

What’s wrong with the sentence in the image above? At first glance, it may seem fine. After all, it doesn’t sound strange or cumbersome. (Malls and exams are pretty normal things.) But there’s something about this sentence that makes it unsettling to readers: it creates ambiguity. In essence, it raises more questions than it answers. Why? Because it contains an ambiguous pronoun. Today’s we’re going to talk about how to identify and fix ambiguous pronouns.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that stands in place of a noun or another pronoun. In most cases, the noun or other pronoun appears somewhere else in the same sentence or nearby in the same paragraph. Pronouns make our lives easier by letting us simplify our sentences and avoid repetition. Here’s an example of sentence that doesn’t have any pronouns:

  • “The mother told the mother’s son that the mother wanted the mother’s son to unpack the boxes.”

Sounds a bit clunky and repetitive, doesn’t it? Here’s how we can change this by using pronouns:

  • “The mother told her son that she wanted him to unpack the boxes.”

In this sentence, “her” stands in place of “mother’s” so that we can say “her son” instead of “mother’s son.” “She” stands in place of the second “mother.” And “him” stands in place of the second “son.” Don’t these changes make the sentence a whole lot easier?

Antecedents

Pronouns (e.g., “he”) tend to be more generic words than the nouns they represent (e.g., “Tim”). For this reason, you always need to make sure that your pronouns clearly map onto one and only one noun. That is, you need to make sure that each pronoun has a clear antecedent. Let’s take a look at our mother-son sentence again as an example:

  • “The mother told her son that she wanted him to unpack the boxes.”

In this sentence, “her” and “she” refer to “mother” – “mother” is the antecedent of these pronouns. Similarly, “him” refers to “son,” so “son” is the antecedent of “him.”

One of the keys to clear writing is making sure that your pronouns have clear antecedents.

What is an ambiguous pronoun?

When a pronoun doesn’t have a clear antecedent, you run into trouble. As a writer, you might not really feel it. After all, you should probably know what your pronouns mean. But your reader won’t, and it can make them really confused about what you’re trying to say. Here are 3 major types of ambiguous pronouns you can end up subjecting your reader to:

Case #1: The antecedent is missing

Sometimes the antecedent of a pronoun is missing altogether. Check out this example:

  • “The skill of the trapeze artists made it a pleasure to watch.”

Do you see the problem? We don’t what “it” means. It could be the artists’ performance, the entire circus performance, or something else entirely. We don’t know because the sentence doesn’t tell us. How do we fix ambiguous pronouns like this? By replacing “it” with the actual noun we’re referring to:

  • “The skill of the trapeze artists made the trapeze act a pleasure to watch.”

Case # 2: There is more than one possible antecedent

Sometimes we have too many antecedents in a sentence and we don’t know which one matches a particular pronoun. Take a look at this sentence:

  • “Tania and Ariel went to the mall after she wrote her exam.”

Who does “she” refer to? Tania? Ariel? Again, the sentence doesn’t make it clear. How do we fix ambiguous pronouns like this? We replace “she” with the name of the woman we’re referring to:

  • “Tania and Ariel went to the mall after Ariel wrote her exam.”

We could also word the sentence like this:

  • “Tania and Ariel went to the mall after Ariel’s exam.”

Case #3: There are multiple pronouns and antecedents in the same sentence

Sometimes we’re faced with sentences that have multiple pronouns and antecedents, and we don’t know which ones match with which. Check out this sentence:

  • “When the bottle is empty or the baby stops drinking, it must be sterilized with hot water, because if it drinks from a dirty bottle, it could become ill.”

It” can refer to both the bottle and the baby, which can be confusing for the reader. Of course, in this case, we can guess that the bottle is the thing being sterilized and the baby is the one drinking and becoming ill. Any other way of interpreting the sentence just wouldn’t make a lot of sense. But not all cases like this are this easy to sort out. So how do we fix ambiguous pronouns like this? We replace them with the actual nouns they refer to.

  • “When the bottle is empty or the baby stops drinking, the bottle must be sterilized with hot water, because if the baby drinks from a dirty bottle, he or she could become ill.”

Why it’s important to fix ambiguous pronouns

Ambiguous pronouns don’t just make your reader’s job harder. They can also lead to confusion and misunderstanding about who is responsible for completing a task. Take a look at this sentence:

  • “The client and vendor have agreed that they will schedule the meeting.”

Who’s responsible for scheduling the meeting? The client or the vendor? We don’t know because “they” is ambiguous; we don’t know which party it refers to. And what’s worse is that both the client and vendor could assume that it refers to the other party. So the client could assume that the vendor is responsible for this task whereas the vendor could assume the opposite.

The problem with ambiguity isn’t just the confusion. It’s that it allows people to interpret the same sentence in different ways. And in some cases, people might not even realize that there’s another way to interpret the sentence. That’s why it’s important to fix ambiguous pronouns.

Summary

Pronouns are handy words. They help us simplify sentences by using shorter words and avoiding repetition. But when they aren’t paired with their antecedents, pronouns can cause more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid using them. It just means that you need to know how to identify and fix ambiguous pronouns.
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Want to read about other words that create confusion in sentences? Check out our post on how to fix dangling modifiers.
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How to fix ambiguous pronouns
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