Pronoun Reference in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Pronoun agreement and pronoun reference
In this sentence, the plural pronoun them is faulty because there is no plural noun for it to refer to.

In English grammar, reference is the relationship between a grammatical unit (usually a pronoun) that refers to (or stands in for) another grammatical unit (usually a noun or noun phrase). The noun or noun phrase that a pronoun refers to is called the antecedent.

A pronoun may point back to other items in a text (anaphoric reference) or—less commonly—point ahead to a later part of the text (cataphoric reference). In traditional grammar, a construction in which a pronoun doesn't refer clearly and unambiguously to its antecedent is called faulty pronoun reference.

Examples and Observations

  • "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
    (Dorothy Parker)
  • "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
    (Albert Einstein)
  • "An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over."
    (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814)
  • "It is harder to convince young people they 'can learn' when they are cordoned off by a society that isn't sure they really can."
    (Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation. Crown, 2005)
  • "The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum."
    (Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club. Putnam, 1989)

Ambiguous Pronoun Reference

  • "The school board had to decide whether to spend $186,000 to sponsor permanent residency for the foreign teachers or let them go back to the Philippines and start the search all over again. "They decided to do it, but not without debate."
    ("Creative Way to Find Teachers." Savannah Morning News, Oct. 17, 2011)
  • "If a baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it."
    (Department of Health, quoted by John Preston in "Speak Plainly: Are We Losing the War Against Jargon?" The Daily Telegraph [UK], March 28, 2014)
  • "John Roberts once defended a serial murderer before he became chief justice of the Supreme Court."
    (The Week, March 21, 2014)
  • "Ambiguous pronoun reference occurs when pronouns such as 'he,' 'she,' 'it,' 'they,' 'this,' and 'that' don't refer clearly to one thing. Suppose a friend of yours made the claim that Teddie never argues with his father when he's drunk. "As the claim is stated, you don't know who is drunk. Is it Teddie or his father? Amphiboly exists because the word 'he' is ambiguous. The sentence is poorly worded, and it's impossible to tell what it means."
    (George W. Rainbolt and Sandra L. Dwyer, Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • "He started the car, put the heater on defrost and waited for the windshield to clear, feeling Marguerite's eyes on him. But when he finally turned to look at her, she was peering out the small patch of windshield that had defogged. 'I think it's going to clear,' she said.
    "Ambiguous pronoun reference, his mother piped up from the back, her first critical observation of the new day. Is she talking about the weather or the windshield?"
    ​(Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic. Knopf, 2009)

They as a Generic Pronoun

  • "No singular 3rd person pronoun in English is universally accepted as appropriate for referring to a human when you don't want to specify sex. . . . The pronoun most widely used in such cases is they, in a secondary sense that is interpreted semantically as singular."
    (R. Huddleston and G.K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • When a person stops dreaming, they start dying.

Back Reference and Forward Reference

  • "In grammatical analysis, the term reference is often used to state a relationship of identity which exists between grammatical units, e.g. a pronoun 'refers' to a noun or noun phrase. When the reference is to an earlier part of the discourse, it may be called a 'back-reference' (or anaphora); correspondingly, reference to a later part of the discourse may be called 'forward-reference' (or cataphora)."
    (David Crystal, Dictionary of Linguistics. Blackwell, 1997)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Pronoun Reference in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Pronoun Reference in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pronoun Reference in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).