Pronoun Reference Rules

Pronouns are words that stand in for a noun in a sentence. Whenever pronouns are used, it should be unmistakably clear which noun the pronoun is standing in for. A faulty pronoun reference will result in a muddled sentence and a confused reader.

A pronoun is like an actor’s double on a movie set: it is a simplified version of the noun it is standing in for.

The mother called the daughter.
The mother called her.

Her is a pronoun representing the daughter in a simple construction that causes no confusion. Consider this more complex sentence, however:

The mother called the daughter back to clean up her mess.

Did the daughter forget to do her dishes? Was the mother a slob who thought her daughter should clean up after her? Which person does the pronoun her refer to? This faulty pronoun reference can be easily corrected:

When the daughter made a mess, the mother called her back to clean it up.

Even with two pronouns, the references in this sentence are clear. Here is another example of a faulty pronoun reference.

Separate Daniel and Alexander and then give him a detention for fighting.

Here it is unclear to whom the pronoun him refers. Who is to be punished for fighting? Using the original noun will clarify things for the reader.

Separate Daniel and Alexander and then give Daniel a detention for fighting.

Poor Daniel; he appears to be the guilty party in this encounter, but at least the sentence is clear.

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