English Grammar Basic Grammar and syntax

What is an antecedent? (with examples)

What is an antecedent? (with examples)

An antecedent is the thing represented by a pronoun. The antecedent of a pronoun is a noun.

Easy Examples of Background

In each example, the pronoun is in bold and its antecedent is in bold.

  • Gail said she will be late.
    (“Gail“is the antecedent of the pronoun“she.“)
  • Tell the professor I’ll see him tonight.
    (“The professor“is the antecedent of the pronoun“him.“)

In the examples above, the pronouns“ella“y“the“They are personal pronouns. Detecting an antecedent gets a bit more complicated with the other types of pronouns. Here are some examples:

  • Let Mark do the work himself.
    (“Mark“is the antecedent of the emphatic pronoun“himself.“)
  • Where’s the whelk that Lee caught?
    (“The whelk“is the antecedent of the relative pronoun“that.“)
  • Jack and Jill love each other.
    (“Jack and Jill“is the antecedent of the reciprocal pronoun“each other.“)

If there is a pronoun, then there is an antecedent somewhere (usually near and to the left).

Sometimes, however, the antecedent is not specifically mentioned.

  • Please hide these from Lee.
    (The antecedent is not mentioned, but it will be understood from context, e.g., the talker might be pointing at some pies.)
  • Make sure Mark has some before Lee arrives.
    (The antecedent is not mentioned, but it will be understood from context, e.g., the talker might be pointing at a cake.)

A veces, el antecedente es un concepto.

  • The clown was riding a bull, juggling five knives, and singing Nessun dorma. That is talent.

Sometimes the antecedent comes after the pronoun.

  • When he is nervous, the professor develops a stammer.
    (When an antecedent comes after the pronoun, it’s sometimes called a“postcedent.“)

Sometimes the antecedent is another pronoun.

  • They hate one another.
    (The pronoun“they“is the antecedent of the reciprocal pronoun“one another.“However, the pronoun“they“will have its own antecedent, which will be noun.)

Sometimes pronouns share an antecedent.

  • I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back. (Comedian Henny Youngman)
    (It’s not unusual for different types of pronoun to share an antecedent. Note that a possessive determiner (here,“her“) is a type of possessive pronoun.)

Real-Life Examples of Antecedents

Antecedents of personal pronouns (e.g.,“he,““they“)

  • If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. (Civil-rights leader Martin Luther King)

Antecedents of possessive pronouns (including possessive determiners) (e.g.,“mine,““my,““his,““your,““yours“)

  • Fear has its use, but cowardice has none. (Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi)
    (This is a possessive determiner, which is a type of possessive pronoun.)
  • It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs. (Author Thomas Hardy)
  • Help others achieve their dreams, and you will achieve yours. (Author Les Brown)

Antecedents of indefinite pronouns (e.g.,“none,““several“)

  • Fear has its use, but cowardice has none. (Gandhi)
    (This example is also used above. It’s not unusual for a sentence to feature multiple pronouns and antecedents.)

Antecedents of reciprocal pronouns (e.g.,“each other,““one another“)

  • When people are like each other, they tend to like each other. (Author Tony Robbins)
    (Note that“they“is underlined and in bold. That’s because“they“is the antecedent of the second“each other“but is also a pronoun with its own antecedent (“people“).)

Antecedents of relative pronouns (e.g.,“which,““where“)

  • A meeting is an event where minutes are kept but hours are lost. (Anon)

Antecedents of reflexive pronouns (e.g.,“himself,““itself“)

  • A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. (Playwright William Shakespeare)

Antecedents of emphatic pronouns (e.g.,“himself,““itself“)

  • Nothing is impossible. The word itself says“I’m possible“! (Actress Audrey Hepburn)

Antecedents of demonstrative pronouns (including demonstrative determiners) (e.g.,“this,““these“)

  • This land, this water, this air, this planetthis is our legacy to our young. (US politician Paul Tsongas)
    (The first four“this’s are demonstrative determiners, which are a type of pronoun. [And, yes, it is sometimes acceptable to use an apostrophe for a plural.] The antecedents of the first four“this’s [hey, get over it] are not present, but they are understood from context. The antecedent of the fifth“this“(which is a demonstrative pronoun) is the list of everything that went before.)

Antecedents of interrogative pronouns (e.g.,“which,““who“)

  • Who wants to live forever? (Singer Freddie Mercury)
    (The full antecedent of an interrogative pronoun is something not yet expressed. That’s the point. You’re asking for the full antecedent. When the interrogative pronoun is“who,““an unknown person“is about as much of the antecedent as you can muster before the question is answered.)

Why Should I Care about Antecedents?

If the link between your pronoun and its antecedent is unclear, it will at best give your readers pause. At worst, they will misunderstand your text. To present yourself as a clear thinker, you need to make sure the antecedents of your pronouns are obvious.

The following are the two most common ways in which the link between a pronoun and its antecedent fails. (This is sometimes called a“faulty pronoun reference“).

(Antecedent Fail #1) There is no link.

  • I want a job in journalism because they make democracy work. ❌
    (The antecedent of“they“is meant to be“journalists,“but the word“journalists“isn’t present. This error occurs when writers’ fingers work faster than their brains. Usually, the meaning is clear, but such an error will do little to portray you as a clear thinker. A fix? Replace“they“with“journalists.“)
  • The pie tin was empty because Lee had eaten it. ❌
    (This is a little untidy because the intended antecedent (“pie“) is functioning as an adjective. Antecedents are meant to be nouns, not adjectives. This is quite a technical error, but it’s worth a rewrite.“The tin was empty because Lee had eaten the pie“is one option.)
  • The journalist’s article reflects his experience. ❌
    (This is a little untidy because the intended antecedent (“the journalist“) is in the possessive case and therefore functioning as an adjective. Remember that antecedents represent nouns. It’s worth a rewrite.“The journalist reflects his experience in the article“is an option.)
  • To deliver oxygen fast to its hard-working muscles, the cheetah’s respiratory tract is enlarged. ❌
    (As a standalone sentence, this is untidy because the intended antecedent of“its“(“the cheetah“) is a possessive-case noun. But, you could make a claim for the antecedent being in a previous sentence. Don’t though. Try to keep each of your sentences tidy.)
  • She can arrange an interview with myself if there’s an issue. ❌
    (The antecedent of the reflexive pronoun“myself“is always“I.“Here, the pronoun“myself“is missing its antecedent. A fix? Replace“myself“with“me.“)

(Antecedent Fail #2) The link is ambiguous.

  • Jack told John he was depressed.
    (This is ambiguous. The antecedent of“he“could be“Jack“or“John.“Note that neither“Jack told Jill he was depressed“nor“Jack told Jill she was depressed“is ambiguous.)
  • The letter from the bosses to the employees gave details of their annual bonuses.
    (This is ambiguous. Is the antecedent“the bosses“or“the employees? Fix? Spell it out. Replace“their“with“the bosses’.“)
  • The icing on the cake was quite intricate, but Lee ate it before the party.
    (This is ambiguous. Is the antecedent“the icing“or“the cake? Fix? Spell it out. Replace“it“with“the icing.“)
  • The villagers pour any leftover mouldy grapes into a horse trough and crush the grapes with unwashed feet. The sludge is then mixed with the local sulphur-rich water. That is why their wine is unpalatable.
    (Most people would take the antecedent of“That“to be the whole process described, but the antecedent could feasibly be the use“of sulphur-rich water,““mouldy grapes,““the horse trough,“or“unwashed feet.“If there’s doubt, spell it out.“This whole process is why their wine is unpalatable“is one option.)
  • It isn’t what they say about youit’s what they whisper. (Actor Errol Flynn)
    (This example is not terribly ambiguous, but I have included it to highlight that the pronouns“it,““they,“and“you“are commonly used with implied vague antecedents. Sometimes, it’s useful to leave the antecedents as vague, but sometimes it’s worth spelling them out. This could have been rewritten as“What matters to me isn’t what my peers say about me…it’s what they whisper.“)

Use“it’s“,“they“o“you“with an implied vague antecedent is common in speech, and is a fairly efficient way of getting a point across. However, it will not portray you as a clear thinker. In formal writing, use more direct words.

  • It said in the newspaper that a great white shark had been spotted off Cornwall.
    (A possible fix:“According to the newspaper, a great white shark has been spotted off Cornwall.“)
  • They reckon it’s going to rain all week.
    (A possible fix:“The BBC weather forecast said it was going to rain all week.“)
  • You can’t buy normal lightbulbs these days.
    (A possible fix:“Shops don’t sell normal lightbulbs these days.“)

Key Points

Every time you use a pronoun, do a quick check to make sure its antecedent is present and obvious. (Be particularly vigilant with sentences beginning with“This“o“It’s“.)

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