One of my more memorable comic book stories has Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny building a small airplane. Elmer is holding the propeller and has centered it to the crankshaft of the airplane motor. It seems the propeller needs only a few whacks of the hammer to lock it in place on the crankshaft. Bugs is ready with his hammer.
Elmer says: “When I nod my head, hit it with the hammer.”
Bugs says: “Are you sure about that?”
Elmer says: “Yes I’m sure.”
Elmer nods his head. Bugs hits Elmer’s head with the hammer! I chuckled for three days after I read that comic story even though I really had no technical understanding of pronouns at that time in my life. It was an amazing play on words.
What Elmer should have said was: “When I nod my head, hit THE PROPELLER with the hammer.”
Take a look at the original instruction:
When I nod my head, hit it with the hammer.
Find “it”. Move to the left in the sentence and find the first noun phrase. That is called the antecedent. In this case, the antecedent is “my head.”
For sure, Elmer had meant “propeller,” but Bugs only followed proper English grammar. Any pronoun refers back to the antecedent, not what the writer or speaker had intended.
Consider this sentence.
Fred drove his truck to Calgary.
The pronoun in this sentence is “his” (and often called a possessive pronoun). Who is “his”? Well, just go back to the first noun before the pronoun: we get Fred. “His” is actually a substitute for “Fred’s”.
Now let’s make things a little confusing:
Fred and Steve drove his truck to Calgary.
If we use the antecedent rule, technically speaking, the truck belongs to Steve. But I think most English brains would consider this sentence confusing, mostly because we English speakers know other English speakers are often not using the antecedent / pronoun rules properly. This is a case where multiple meanings are possible, and many English speakers would unconsciously recognize the confusion and ask some questions. The following three changes would clarify the sentence.
Fred and Steve drove Steve’s truck to Calgary.
Fred and Steve drove Fred’s truck to Calgary.
Fred and Steve drove their trucks to Calgary.
Here’s another example
Jack and Sally were on a dinner date and ordered the prime rib. The waitress brought both plates straight from the kitchen. When she tasted it, she thought it was the best meat ever.
“She” is the pronoun. Obviously this pronoun cannot refer to Jack, who is a “he”. But the second sentence introduces another “she” into the picture. So if we go left of this pronoun and search for the nearest noun representing a “she”, we get the waitress. It is not logical that a waitress will be taste-testing her customer’s food.
There is another pronoun in this piece that is a little lost with its antecedent: “When she tasted IT”. If we use our rule and work back from the pronoun, the first noun to the left is “kitchen,” which doesn’t make sense. The next noun is “plates”, which is plural, so they can not be an “it”. The next noun is the “prime rib” which fits with the pronoun and is logically consistent. Many readers would not be confused in this case, as the verb “taste” probably set the stage for our brain to accept “prime rib” as “it” even though that noun phrase is not technically the antecedent for that pronoun.
Many English writers often put the pronoun far away from its antecedent and even put a few noun phrases in between. In many cases, confusion will not result, so it becomes easy to trivialize this grammar rule. However, confusion can result — and it makes the writer look less professional when the reader is forced to read a little harder to find the meaning.
The pronoun/antecedent rule is an easy mistake to make. I often make this mistake in my earlier drafts. But I usually catch most of them by the fourth round of editing/rewriting. When I’m in the copy editing stage and I can retain my focus, I will actually identify each pronoun, and see that its antecedent is close by and is logical. (Notice how close that “its” and “pronoun” are so close together in the last sentence). But in the end, I trust my editor who is looking at my manuscript with a set of fresh eyes.
Here is the paragraph rewritten, which reduces possible confusion considerably:
Jack and Sally were on a dinner date and ordered the prime rib. The waitress brought both plates straight from the kitchen. When SALLY tasted THE PRIME RIB, she thought it was the best meat ever.
THE ANTICIPATORY PRONOUN
Sometimes pronouns don’t have antecedents. Consider this classic opening line of a mystery novel:
It was a dark and stormy night.
What is “it” actually representing? If we use the antecedent/pronoun rule, there really isn’t anything to refer back to.
The use of the anticipatory pronoun comes more or less from an English grammar rule that requires all sentences to have a subject noun. When no subject noun works, the anticipatory pronoun fills in that space to make the sentence sound right.
Most often, this pronoun is “it”. But others are allowed, and the second preceding paragraph has one example tucked inside of a complex sentence:
. . . there really isn’t anything to refer back to.
“There” is mostly filling a space for the subject noun phrase position. It would be hard to tie that pronoun to something more concrete. So too would be the “it” in the preceding sentence. And we could argue that “too” (in the preceding sentence) is a form of an anticipatory pronoun in the preceding sentence, because “too” is usually considered an adverb and adverbs cannot be subject nouns. Isn’t English fun?
So when checking your antecedent/pronoun agreements, expect some pronouns not to have antecedents. But if the pronoun is actually representing something or someone, make sure the antecedent is real close. Your readers will likely not thank you for mastering this grammar, but they might comment on your clear writing.
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My apologies to any Medium readers who believe this article is too elementary for Medium. I will concur that most Medium writers probably don’t need this pronoun lesson.
I originally wrote this article as a service for another internet forum that had lots of great discussion, but writing skills were not well advanced. I will be posting a few more “grammar” articles this week. They might be more useful to a few Medium writers.