How to Improve Your Writing: Avoid Unclear Antecedents

Laura's Lessons
We all want our writing to be easy for our readers to understand, right? I doubt many of us want readers to go through a sentence 2, 3, 4 times and still not get it. Since there are many factors that go into straightforward writing, I’ll start with a fun topic: unclear antecedents. Eh…what?

An antecedent is something that logically comes before something else. OK, but what do antecedents have to do with grammar?

Pronouns need antecedents.

Pronouns are those things that substitute for nouns, such as she, him, they, this, that, those, whose—you get it. When we write with pronouns, each pronoun needs to refer to something—its antecedent.

Take this example:

The doctors finished their emergency medicine board review.

We know “their” refers to “the doctors” because that was the most recent noun. If we just said “They finished their emergency medicine board review,” we’d need some context to know who exactly “they” are.

What happens when we have multiple nouns with a pronoun?

The patient presents with her mother, who reports she has been feeling nauseous for the past three days.

We have two nouns (the patient, mother) and three pronouns (her, who, she).

Time to dive in: 

The first pronoun is “her,” which must refer to the closest previous noun, “the patient.” Great, easy! 

Next, we get to “who,” which should go with the closest previous noun, in this case, “mother.” Are we all on the same page?

And now “she,” which comes right after “who.” “Who” referred to the patient’s mother, so we’d assume that “she” does as well.

Her mother reports she has been feeling nauseous.

Sounds like the mother hasn’t been feeling well. But wait, shouldn’t we be talking about the patient here, not her mother? 

“She” has an unclear antecedent

The patient presents with her mother, who reports the patient has been feeling nauseous for the past three days.

Much clearer! But pronouns aren’t always straightforward.

Two common pronouns, “this” and “it,” are often used vaguely. I’ve even edited a few out of this piece (editors need editors, I tell you). 

It is clearest to write it this way. 

What is clearest to write what which way? (Say that 10 times.)

How about this:

The clearest way to write the example is as follows.

Sounds a little formal, but we know exactly what I’m talking about! 


When we speak, we’re obviously much more lax with these sorts of guidelines, but they are important to think about when you’re writing.

And what’s the antecedent to “they”? “These sorts of guidelines”—well done!


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