Thursday, October 15, 2009

The vague antecedent (3): “as such”

A frequent error that hampers clear writing is the vague antecedent. An antecedent is a noun (a word, phrase or clause) that a pronoun refers to. The antecedent should precede the pronoun.* The antecedent should be clear, not vague. In summary: every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun as its antecedent.

For some reason, we are especially prone to using vague antecedents in connection with the pronoun such as used in the phrase as such. Here’s a typical example.

Example of a Vague Antecedent

The Daily Mail (UK) recently ran an article (Warning: Article includes a disturbing drawing) about the infamous murderer nicknamed “Jack the Ripper.” The article discusses a suspect in the case, a mortuary attendant named Robert Mann.

“After the killing of Polly Nichols, the Ripper’s first official victim, Mann unlocked the mortuary for the police so they could examine the body and as such, was called as a witness in her inquest to help establish the cause of death.”

The pronoun such has no clear antecedent. It apparently refers to the clause, “Mann unlocked the mortuary...” If that was the writer’s intention, he should have written something like this:

Mann was the attendant who unlocked the mortuary…

This gives the pronoun such a clearly stated noun (attendant) as an antecedent.

The Takeaway: Avoid vague antecedents. Every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun (a word, phrase or clause) as its antecedent. Don’t make your readers guess which noun you mean. It’s bad manners.

*The English word antecedent comes from Latin for going before.

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