antecedent (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Woman's hand writing on a notepad
We use antecedents in our daily speech and writing (Photo: Emilija Manevska / Getty Images).


In English grammar, an antecedent is the noun or noun phrase that a pronoun refers to. Also known as a referent.

More broadly, an antecedent may be any word in a sentence (or in a sequence of sentences) that another word or phrase refers to.

Despite the implications of the term (Latin ante- means "before"), "an antecedent can follow rather than precede [the pronoun]: 'For his first Pacific voyage, Cook had no chronometer'" (Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 2005).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "to go before"

Pronunciation: an-ti-SEED-ent

Examples and Observations

In the following sentences, certain pronouns are in bold print, and the antecedents of those pronouns are in italics.

  • "When giving treats to friends or children, give them what they like, emphatically not what is good for them."
    (G.K. Chesterton)
  • "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse."
    (E.B. White, Stuart Little. Harper, 1945)
  • "Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God that I was grateful."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out."
    (Virginia Woolf, "The Modern Essay," 1922)
  • "I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, 'Where's the self-help section?' She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose."
    (George Carlin)
  • "Most people are unable to write because they are unable to think, and they are unable to think because they congenitally lack the equipment to do so, just as they congenitally lack the equipment to fly over the moon."
    (H. L. Mencken, "Literature and the Schoolma'm," 1926)
  • When they are happy, infants clap their hands to show pleasure.
  • "Why do we envy him, the bankrupt man?"
    (John Updike, Hugging the Shore, 1984)

Usage Tips

  • How to Recognize Relative Clauses
    "Like other pronouns, the relative pronoun has an antecedent, the noun that it refers to and replaces.
    "Three features of the relative pronoun will help you recognize the relative clause: (1) The relative pronoun renames the headword of the noun phrase in which it appears . . .. (2) The relative pronoun fills a sentence slot in its own clause. And (3) the relative pronoun introduces the clause, no matter what slot it fills.
    "Let's look at [an] example, this one a relative clause introduced by that, perhaps the most common relative pronoun: This is the house that Jack built. (1) The antecedent of that is house . . .; (2) that fills a slot in its clause; and (3) that opens its clause, even though it functions as the direct object in the clause."
    (Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar, 5th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998)
  • Usage Tip: Number
    "In the following sentence, the noun leaf is the antecedent of the pronoun it.
    The leaf turned yellow, but it did not fall.
    A pronoun must always agree with its antecedent. If an antecedent is singular, as it is in the sentence above, the pronoun must be singular. If the antecedent is plural, as it is in the sentence below, the pronoun must also be plural.
    The leaves turned yellow, but they did not fall." (Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Writing First with Readings: Practice in Context, 5th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012)
  • Usage Tip: Absent Antecedents
    "Do not use a pronoun to refer vaguely to an antecedent that is implied but is not actually present. Replace the pronoun with a suitable noun phrase:
    The airlines and airports are unable to cope with the new security measures. Delays and frustration affect travellers daily. No one saw it coming.
    The airlines and airports are unable to cope with the new security measures. Delays and frustration affect travellers daily. No one anticipated the problem." (Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, An Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2002)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "antecedent (grammar)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). antecedent (grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "antecedent (grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).