Careful pronoun use helps writers avoid confusion and miscommunication. When pronoun reference is vague or ambiguous, it means that the noun (or antecedent) that the pronoun refers to is not clear.
Susan Thurman, in The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need, says that after verbs, pronouns cause the most problems with writers. Indeed, vague pronoun reference occurs near the top of both the 1986 and the 2006 versions of the list of top twenty common errors. (It did slip from the top 2 position in the earlier list to the number 4 position in the later list.)
Most people recognize that pronouns are used in place of nouns that are already known or have already been mentioned. Using them can make writing smoother and communication efficient. Notice the difference in the following sentences when the noun phrase the elderly man is replace with a pronoun he.
The elderly man sat on the bent until the elderly man was asked to leave.
The elderly man sat on the bent until he was asked to leave.
In some cases, the antecedent that the pronoun refers to is clear:
Shirley called to say she would be glad to help decorate for the party on Friday.
Here, the pronoun she refers to the noun Shirley (it’s antecedent).
In the following example, however, the reference is not as clear:
Billy Joe invited Darrell to the ranch because he enjoyed horseback riding.
Here there are two possible nouns or antecedents the pronoun he could refer to: Billy Joe and Darrell.
In cases in which there are two (or more) antecedents, a reader cannot tell what the writer had in mind. Who enjoys horseback riding, Billy Joe or Darrell?
Depending on what is meant, this sentence can be rewritten to make the meaning clear:
Because Darrel enjoyed horseback riding, Billy Joe invited him to the ranch.
Billy Joe, who enjoyed horseback riding, invited Darrell to the ranch.
Even with vague pronoun reference, the context can supply the intention, but sometimes a reader has to go back and reread in order to trace the pronoun to its antecedent or the noun it refers to.
Here’s an example from a newspaper article cited by Cathy Kehrwald Cook in Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing (105).
“Tell Them” was written, incidentally, by the songwriter Paul Dresser, the brother of the novelist Theodore Dreiser, whose “My Gal Sal” will be sung at the stops along East 20th Street.
Though we may guess or know that Paul Dresser wrote “My Gal,” a relative pronoun like whose usually refers to the noun immediately preceding it, which would be Dreiser. This can be a stumbling block to a reader. Cook provides this suggested revision:
Incidentally, both “Tell Them” and “My Gal Sal,” the song that will be sung at the stops along East 20th Street, were written by Paul Dresser, the brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser.
Martha Kolln in Rhetorical Grammar also points to instances when a vague pronoun reference can cause a fuzziness, rather than clear understanding.
She first provides examples in which the pronouns clearly refer to the nouns or noun phrases preceding them:
The old gymnasium needs a new roof.
It needs a new roof.
My sister’s boyfriend works for a meat-packing company.
He works for a meat-packing company.
In other examples, Kolln shows that while the meaning is not at stake, a fuzziness occurs because the pronouns refer not to a complete noun phrases, but to only a noun modifier:
The neighbor’s front porch is covered with trash, but he refuses to clean it up.
The neighbor’s dog gets into my garbage every week, but he refuses to do anything about it.
My sister’s boyfriend works for a meat-packing company. She’s a vegetarian.
It’s hard to keep track of the Administration’s stand on tariffs. They say something different every week.
Last summer I didn’t get to a single baseball game, even though it’s my favorite sport. (239-40)
Sometimes a pronoun has no clear antecedent. Consider the following sentence from Cook (106):
The young recording star was elated, but kept it hidden?
What did the star keep hidden?
If we follow the rule that a pronoun must refer to a noun already known or already mentioned, then the sentence would read:
The young recording star was elated, but kept elated hidden.
But, the antecedent cannot be elated because elated is not a noun. In such cases, we must replace the pronoun with a noun phrase that expresses the meaning.
Here is the sentence rewritten:
The young recording star was elated with his hit record, but kept his feelings hidden.
The following example of the need to provide a noun (or noun phrase) instead of a pronoun for a preceding noun illustrates the problem of the vague use of pronouns such as this:
I just found out that my roommate is planning to withdraw from school.
This really shocked me.
Though we understand what is meant, there is no clear antecedent for the pronoun this. It is a vague use. Ask of the sentence, what shocked the speaker?
Her decision really shocked me.
This vague use occurs because the words this, that, it, and which are sometimes used as a short cut for referring to something mentioned earlier. However, as with other pronouns, these words need a clear antecedent.
As you review and revise your writing, make sure that the pronouns you are using not only have clear antecedents, but also that they are referring to something that has already been expressed.