© Damen, 2002

11. Pronoun Referents.

I read this recently in a paper:

Caesar was a powerful military general with a huge army at his feet that made him the great ruler he was.

Wait a second there! What is it that made Caesar "a powerful military general"? The writer means—or, at least, I hope he means!—that it was Caesar's army "that made him the great ruler he was." But, as the sentence stands, "that" goes with Caesar's "feet." Am I to conclude that, according to this author, Caesar's feet made him a great ruler? As a friend of mine said when I showed him this sentence, "Well, no wonder he had so little trouble crossing the Rubicon River!"

The sentence when read as it's written—and technically it's the only way to read the sentence!—contains a factual error, since I can assure you that, while Caesar's life included many amazing feats, his feet were not among them. This type of error is common in student papers. The basic problem here is that the referent of a pronoun—that is, what the pronoun refers to—is unclear. So, make sure it's self-evident what every "that" or "this" refers to in your writing, or "who" or "they" or any pronoun you use.


What is a pronoun?
The definition of a pronoun is "a word used in the place of or as a substitute for a noun." The most common pronouns in English—and the ones which cause most problems in terms of their referents—are who/whom, he/him/his, she/her, it/its, or they/them/their.

Here's an example where the referent of a pronoun is unclear. "Sparta attacked Athens, and they won." Who are "they"? While it may seem to the writer like he's saying the Spartans won, the sentence itself doesn't say that, at least not the way it's written. It says "Sparta," which is a city, and as a city is not a "they" but an "it." By the same logic which claims Sparta equals "they," one might infer Athens is also "they." The statement could, then, be taken to mean the Athenians won when the Spartans attacked, which is historically incorrect. So, as always, in order for me to assess what you know, I have to see precisely what you mean. And that means making it clear what "it" or "they" or any pronoun you use refers to.

There's a simple way to test whether your pronouns are right. Since a pronoun stands in place of a noun, look back over your sentence and see what's the last possible thing to which any pronoun you've written might refer—singular or plural—and if the last possible thing is the proper referent, your use of the pronoun is correct. For instance, if you write "The Spartans attacked Athens and they won," since the closest plural noun to "they" is Spartans, your sentence is correct because the Spartans did, in fact, win the Peloponnesian War.

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