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Error 6: Vague or Ambiguous Pronoun Reference (pro)

Remember that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. An ambiguous pronoun reference occurs when it’s not clear what noun a pronoun refers to, as in this example:

  • Ambiguous pronoun reference example: The teacher gave the student her notes. (Does the pronoun her refer to the noun teacher or the noun student?)

A vague pronoun reference occurs in one of two situations: (1) when a pronoun like it, this, that, and which refers to an implied concept or word rather than to a specific, preceding noun; and (2) when a pronoun is used to refer to the object of a prepositional phrase.

  • Example of (1) above: She gave the Red Cross all her money, and this is the reason why she declared bankruptcy. (Here, this refers to an implied concept that could be phrased something like “the fact that she gave the Red Cross all her money” rather to a specific noun.)
  • Better: The fact that she gave the Red Cross all her money explains why she declared bankruptcy.
  • Another example of (1) above: Michelle is a shy person, but she keeps it hidden. (Here, it refers to “shyness,” and although the concept of shyness is implied in this sentence, the word shyness does not appear in it. Thus the pronoun is referring to a noun that isn’t there. That’s not good.)
  • Better: Michelle is a shy person, but she keeps her shyness hidden.
  • A final example of (1) above: Judy Cohen’s error brought her a lawsuit.
    (Here, her must refer to Judy Cohen. However, although the concept that a person named Judy Cohen exists is implied in this sentence, the actual words Judy Cohen do not appear before the pronoun. Cohen’s appears, but not Cohen. Thus, again, the pronoun is referring to a noun that isn’t there.)
  • Better: Her error brought Judy Cohen a lawsuit.
  • Example of (2) above: In the average television drama, it presents a false picture of life. (Here, it refers to drama, and drama is the object of the prepositional phrase “in the average television drama.”)
  • Better: The average television drama presents a false picture of life.
  • Another example of (2) above: In the directions, they said that the small box should be opened last. (Here, they refers to directions, and directions is the object of the prepositional phrase “in the directions.”)
  • Better: The directions say that the small box should be opened last.

Exercise

Please print this exercise, mark the correct answers, and check your work against the version with answers.

Exercise on Vague or Ambiguous Pronoun Reference

Exercise on Vague or Ambiguous Pronoun Reference with Answers

 

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