Where the Error Is: Antecedents
Antecedents. Yes, I just heard a collective head-scratching mutter of: ante-what?
a substantive word, phrase, or clause referred to by a pronoun, typically by a following pronoun1
Still confused? There’s no need to be. It’s fairly straightforward. But do know you will not be able to use “their” and various other pronouns properly without having an understanding of what they are and how they affect your sentences.
Sometimes the antecedent is the subject of the sentence and sometimes it isn’t. A pronoun that refers to the antecedent does not have to be in the same sentence as the antecedent.
Here’s a refresher.
An antecedent is the word a pronoun references or replaces. Antecedents can be singular or plural. Singular antecedents are represented by singular pronouns and plural antecedents by plural pronouns. And this is all you have to remember (well, except for those tricky antecedents that appear to be plural but are actually singular).
(Antecedents are in blue, pronouns in bold)
Charlene wonders if Thomas likes her. [Singular]
Sally stubbed her toe. She shouted loudly and hopped around on one foot. [Singular]
But the problems with antecedents and the use of “their” do not end with non-gender specific indefinite antecedents. There are several areas where an author can get into trouble. The first is with the use of correlative conjunctions. (If you need a refresher course on conjunctions, please check out our article here.)
When using a correlative conjunction, the plural nature of the pronoun is dependent upon the second antecedent. If the second antecedent is singular, so must be the pronoun and vice versa.
WRONG: Not only the Millers but also the little boy were looking forward to their meeting with Santa.
The second antecedent is singular not plural, which means the plural pronoun “their” is incorrect.
CORRECT: Not only the Millers but also the little boy were looking forward to his meeting with Santa. [Singular]
(I am of the opinion that switching the places of the antecedents in the sentence will make it read better and remove any issues with clarity. As written, it reads as though the Millers’ reaction is based on the little boy’s meeting instead of their own.)
BETTER: Not only the little boy but also the Millers were looking forward to their meeting with Santa. [Plural]
The second problematic area deals with the words “each” and “every”. These words make an antecedent singular, regardless how many antecedents there are.
WRONG: Each plate and glass was set in their place with care
CORRECT: Each plate and glass was set in its place with care.
WRONG: Every house on the block had their own style.
CORRECT: Every house on the block had its own style.
Third, compound antecedents. This when you have more than one antecedent joined by “and.” These are treated as plural (unless used with “each” or “every” as in the example above).
WRONG: The momma cat and her kitten loved to be rubbed under her chin.
CORRECT: The momma cat and her kitten love to be rubbed under their chins.
Which brings us back around to indefinite antecedents. Even when referring to a group (everybody, everyone, everything, etc.) or an ambiguous collective or individual (somebody, anyone, someone, etc.), indefinite antecedents are treated as though they are singular. It may seem illogical, but that’s just the way it is.
WRONG: Each woman rushed the store, hoping to find the wedding dress of their dreams.
CORRECT: Each woman rushed the store, hoping to find the wedding dress of her dreams.
GRAY AREA: Anyone shopping after midnight in that area must be out of their mind.
BETTER: Anyone shopping after midnight in that area must be out of his or her mind.
The last area with antecedents is as collective nouns and businesses and organizations, and it’s an oh-so-common error. These types of antecedents are treated as singular instead of plural.
WRONG: The horde approached their camp victoriously.
CORRECT: The horde approached its camp victoriously.
WRONG: My team cannot wait until their homecoming game.
CORRECT: My team cannot wait until its homecoming game.
WRONG: The Alan family is holding their long anticipated reunion next year.
CORRECT: The Alan family is holding its long anticipated reunion next year.
Businesses and Organizations:
WRONG: The Foundation for Urban Renewal is holding their annual charity ball this evening.
CORRECT: The Foundation for Urban Renewal is holding its annual charity ball this evening.
WRONG: Let’s go to the sub shop. I love their sandwiches.
CORRECT: Let’s go to the sub shop. I love its sandwiches.
WRONG: I want to go to USC. Their academic programs are topnotch.
CORRECT: I want to go to USC. Its academic programs are topnotch.
So there it is. The dos and don’ts of antecedents.
Now get back to writing, y’all. 🙂
1. “Antecedent.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed January 26, 2015. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antecedent.