Friday, October 31, 2008

The vague antecedent

Another weakness to avoid, if you want to make your writing clear, is the vague antecedent.

That is to say, the antecedent of every pronoun you write should be a noun, and a typical reader should not have to guess which noun you mean. For example:

CLEAR ANTECEDENT: My friend Guy’s father is a gunrunner. Guy wants to be one, too.

VAGUE ANTECEDENT: My friend Louisa is fascinated by everything medical, and wants to be one. (Doctor? Nurse? CEO of a pharmaceutical manufacturer? Hospital administrator? Lab technician? Ambulance driver?)

Here’s an example of an antecedent that is almost clear but not perfectly. On the blog God’s Politics, Chuck Collins writes:

“When wages fall or are stagnant for 70 percent of the population, folks pay the rising costs of food, fuel, and health care by working more hours and borrowing with credit cards and home equity (if they have one).” (Boldface added.)

Most readers would probably guess that Mr. Collins means the pronoun one to refer to home. However, in this case home is not a noun but an adjective. It modifies the noun equity.

Mr. Collins should have written:

and home equity (if they own a home)

A fine point of grammar? Yes. But I am holding Mr. Collins to a high standard because he is writing for a blog that claims to speak for God, from Whom we fallible mortals expect perfection in all things.

The Takeaway: Avoid vague antecedents. Every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun as its antecedent.