Unclear Pronoun Reference

I spent today at Barnes and Noble grading student essays, and by far the most common usage issue I noticed was unclear pronoun reference. I plan to do a minilesson on unclear pronoun reference when I hand back the papers. If your students have the same issue, you might find this lesson helpful.

First, students tend to have trouble with indefinite pronouns. If they use “someone” or “everybody,” they will often replace these indefinite pronouns with “their” later in the sentence. For example, “Someone forgot their pencil.” In spoken usage, it sounds OK to us because we use “their” to replace antecedents with an unknown gender. The person who left his/her pencil might be male or female, so to avoid saying the incorrect gender, we often say the incorrect number. Unfortunately, English has no gender-neutral pronoun we can use in these situations. We should say “Someone forgot his or her pencil,” even though it sounds formal, clunky, and awkward. I always suggest to students that they figure out a way to make the antecedent plural. It might not work in my previous example, but “Everyone forgot his or her lunch today” could easily become “All of them forgot their lunch today.”

Another more common issue in my set of papers was the unclear use of “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” to refer to an antecedent in a previous clause or sentence. Here’s an example: “Today girls are using abortions as a form of contraception, and this has become a lot more common.” Does the word this refer to abortions, contraception, or the use of abortions as contraception? It’s unclear. This sentence could be revised” “Today girls are more commonly using abortions as a form of contraception.” Of course, that’s provided the writer meant the third possible meaning of this. I’m sure the sentence could be tweaked even more to be even better, but at least in the correction, no unclear pronoun reference clouds the reader’s understanding. I tell students to avoid using words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” alone instead of near a noun. “This problem” or “that character” are more specific that simply “this” or “that,” and I have found that students are often trying to use these words when unclear pronoun reference troubles arise. Students simply put the demonstrative pronouns too far away from the antecedents those words are replacing.

I can demonstrate correcting this usage problem using the example above in about five minutes, and it might help some of my students avoid unclear pronoun reference issues. Feel free to use and adapt this lesson as you see fit.

11 thoughts on “Unclear Pronoun Reference”

  1. These are common issues for my students as well. I do daily grammar and ACT practice in the form of bellwork, and I make sure to hit those common errors from my students' writing at least a couple of times a week. I have found that to have a much bigger impact than a one-time lesson or example.

  2. My guess is that these types of errors appear frequently in the writing of college students and beyond. As an elementary school teacher, I wonder how this issue can be addressed on a lower level!

  3. Thanks for sharing this Dana. I appreciated it for more than the lesson–I like how you share your process here. You didn't simply grade those papers…you looked for trends and changed your practice in response to what you saw there. This is a good example of what formative assessment practice looks like. It isn't something extra and it isn't something teachers have little value for. It's what they are already doing to serve kids well. Imagine what could happen if more teachers did this and then were given time to discuss what they were noticing/how they were responding.

    1. Thanks, Angela. I did a follow-up exercise. I had students find one example of unclear pronoun reference marked in their papers and rewrite the sentence so that it was clear. I looked over their notebooks today, and I saw some great revisions.

  4. We use the same strategy to remove the gender bias in writing while avoiding pronoun number problems: make the subject plural and use the plural pronoun. We discuss this strategy with our continuing education students, and have addressed it in our writing guides.

    Here's a blurb from our article on this topic. Perhaps your readers will find it useful.


    Once upon a time, in the world of writing, using the word "he" was a perfectly acceptable way to name an unknown person. For example, few, if any, readers would blink at "If a person wants to write well, he will need to use good grammar." Now, many readers argue that this is sexist writing because it only refers to male writers. After all, some would argue, women write, too.

    We could revise this sentence to read, "If a person wants to write well, she…," but this would have the same problem. The language is still sexist. To remove this gender bias in writing, some writers may revise this sentence to read, "If a person wants to write well, they…" The gender bias is gone, but now the sentence has incorrect grammar. Can you spot the grammatical problem?

    "A person" refers to one person, but "they" is a plural pronoun referring to more than one person. To prevent this problem, a writer (with good grammar) may write, "If a person wants to write well, he or she will need to use good grammar." Even worse, the writer may write "he/she" or "s/he." Yuck. This is awkward to read, especially when reading aloud. The writer could also revise the sentence to read, "If a person wants to write well, the person…," but this is cumbersome to read.

    A better way to remove sexist language requires more fundamental changes to the sentence. For example, the sentence could be revised to read, "If people want to write well, they need to use good grammar." As you can see, this sentence no longer suffers from gender bias or poor grammar. We avoided both problems by making the subject singular, which allows us to use the gender neutral pronoun "they."


    As a former H.S. writing instructor, I look forward to reading more from your site.

  5. Singular they/their is really not an error at all in my book, but the obvious and correct solution to the gender problem with pronouns. The instinct behind advice to revise the sentence to use a plural antecedent is correct: he, she, and he/she are all bad choices that will distract readers from your point. However, it's not always possible or desirable to make this revision.

    "Themself" is a handy pronoun to look at because it clearly only applies to the singular "they", and its use has been steadily rising since the 1970s, including uses in such paragons of good writing as the New York Times.

    According to my Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (a beloved resource every English teacher should own), the use of "they" as a singular pronoun dates back to Chaucer. They also cite examples from Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Auden and on.

    The proscription against singular "they" started in the 18th century. While we were comfortable with the overt sexism of "he", the proscription was able to hold (at least for educated speakers fearful of correction).

    Now all that is shifting. I'm in my 30s and in casual speech "they" doesn't make me so much as blink. In writing, I've adapted to see "they" as normal, after a childhood being told it was wrong. I'm convinced that for the next generation, "they" will simply return to being the natural and normal solution in both writing and speaking. I for one am not going to stand in its way.

    1. You may be right about usage dictating a change eventually. It's already in process with "all right," which I see even in the dictionary and edited print at "alright." I think "a lot" is going to become "alot." It used to be "to-day" and "to-morrow" once upon a time. In Shakespeare's day, we designated between the informal "thou" and the formal "you," but "you" is now used for both (and the plural form as well). Because we are working with a living language, it will change according to use. I am not sure I agree with you about how soon, and I don't see it as correct either, but correctness changes with the times, and I don't discount the idea that that form may one day become correct.

  6. Working on a proposal drafted by someone with a PhD who graduated from an elite liberal arts undergraduate college, and am finding these same errors, including rampant use of unclear this's.

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