On The Addams Family TV show, Cousin Itt was one of the more ambiguous characters. Hairy from top to bottom, Itt always wore sunglasses that further obscured the character’s identity — and no one ever said exactly where Itt came from.
Uncertain origin is funny in a dark TV comedy, but not in writing for your business. Which brings us to today’s topic: pronouns and their antecedents. Pronouns stand in for people, names and other nouns (he/him, she/her, we/they, our/their and it). Their antecedents are the nouns used earlier that they stand for (the prefix “ante” means “before”).
When writing or editing, it’s important to keep track of the antecedents of pronouns, because it’s easy for writers to lose track as they push to get their thoughts on paper. And sometimes a writer will use a pronoun with one antecedent in mind when there are several possible antecedents. Here are two examples:
Gomez called Lurch into the sitting room and asked him to bring some tea. He gave him a quizzical look. One of our favorite English teachers called this situation “a fuzzy antecedent,” because in the second sentence it’s not clear if the “he” is Gomez or Lurch, or if the “him” is Lurch or Gomez. Changing one of the pronouns in the second sentence to the proper name would remedy the confusion.
Morticia hated meeting neighbors and exchanging small-talk. It was one of her least favorite tasks. In this case, the “it” could be meeting neighbors or making small-talk — or both. If one or the other, specify which; if both, reword the second sentence to read “they were her least favorite tasks.”
Another recurring problem with pronouns is the incorrect use of “their” in second reference. “Their” has become the go-to pronoun in conversation, filling in for companies and organizations as well as groups of individuals. In writing, however, matching your pronoun with its antecedent is still an important measure of professionalism. If a company or organization takes actions or makes announcements as an entity, the pronoun should always be “it” — “The oil company raised its rates.” “The school released its schedule.” When an indefinite pronoun like “anybody,” “anyone,” “everyone,” “everybody” or “somebody” is the antecedent, the pronoun is also singular because these terms are. Use “his,” “hers,” “his/hers” or “his or hers” in second reference. (You can avoid overuse of “his/hers” constructions by alternating “his” or “hers” in text or rephrasing to use a plural antecedent and “their.” And oh — for the record — Cousin Itt would be “it.”
DO carefully check pronouns against their antecedents for agreement when writing or editing.
- DO avoid a “fuzzy antecedent” by making sure it is clear which noun a pronoun refers to.
- DON’T use “they” or “their” to refer to companies or organizations, which are singular and require “it” or “its.”
- DON’T use “they” or “their” to refer to singular indefinite pronouns like “anybody,” “everybody” or “everyone.” They, too, are singular and require “his,” “her” or a combination.
Need help with writing or editing content for social media or your website, blog, email newsletter or print collateral? Email Kim Landry or call 484.829.0021.