Broad Reference (Pronouns)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

broad reference example


In English grammar, broad reference is the use of a pronoun (usually which, this, that, or it) to refer to (or take the place of) a complete clause or sentence rather than a specific noun or noun phrase. Also called implied reference.

Some style guides discourage the use of broad reference on the grounds of vaguenessambiguity, or "fuzzy thought." However, as countless professional writers have demonstrated, broad reference can be an effective device as long as there's no possibility of confusing the reader

Examples and Observations

  • "Many middlemen were forced out of business, and the producers therefore had to deal directly with customers themselves--and this encouraged the production of better wines."
    (Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater, Is This Bottle Corked?: The Secret Life of Wine. Random House, 2008)
  • "I had to pack these brand-new ice skates my mother had practically just sent me a couple of days before. That depressed me. I could see my mother going in Spaulding's and asking the salesman a million dopey questions--and here I was getting the ax again. It made me feel pretty sad."
    (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)
  • "Up, and troubled with Mr. Carcasse's coming to speak with me, which made me give him occasion to fall into a heat, and he began to be ill-mannered to me, which made me angry."
    (Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, April 2-4, 1667)
  • "On a very cold winter's night I lectured for the benefit of an English or American church-charity in a hall that was as hot as the Hereafter. On my way home, I froze. I spent thirty-four days in bed, with congestion of the wind'ard lung. That was the beginning."
    (Mark Twain, "Something About Doctors." Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. by Harriet Elinor Smith. University of California Press, 2010)
  • "To laugh often and much;
    To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
    To earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends;
    To appreciate beauty;
    To find the best in others;
    To leave the world a bit better
    Whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
    To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
    This is to have succeeded."
    (adapted from a poem by Bessie A. Stanley)
  • A Proscription Against Broad Reference
    "For clarity, the pronouns this, that, which, and it should ordinarily refer to specific antecedents rather than to whole ideas or sentences. When a pronoun's reference is needlessly broad, either replace the pronoun with a noun or supply an antecedent to which the pronoun clearly refers.
    More and more often, especially in large cities, we are finding ourselves victims of serious crimes. We learn to accept this [our fate] with minor gripes and groans. For clarity the writer substituted a noun (fate) for the pronoun this, which referred broadly to the idea expressed in the preceding sentence."
    (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002)
  • A Defense of Broad Reference
    While it's true that broad-reference clauses often have a vague quality, sending a message of carelessness, there are times when a which in reference to the whole clause makes the point clearly--and, in fact, may be preferred:
    The men my two sisters married are brothers, which makes their children double cousins. (Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, 5th ed. Pearson, 2007)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Broad Reference (Pronouns)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Broad Reference (Pronouns). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Broad Reference (Pronouns)." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).