What is an Ambiguous Pronoun? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Why Use Pronouns?
  • 0:35 Ambiguous Pronouns
  • 0:55 Removing Ambiguity
  • 2:03 Rewriting the Sentence
  • 2:55 Pronouns in Quotations
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

When you write, it is because you are trying to clearly convey information. Ambiguous pronouns cause confusion for the reader. The good news is that this lesson will show you how to identify and easily correct ambiguous pronouns.

Why Use Pronouns?

You may be asking yourself why we would use pronouns if they could potentially cause problems. Good question. Let's look at a sentence:

  • Alex ate all of Alex's lunch, but Alex was still hungry.

The repetition of Alex's name not only doesn't sound good, but also makes it tedious to read. Now read this:

  • Alex ate all of his lunch, but he was still hungry.

Sounds much better, right? So, pronouns are a great tool, but we just have to make sure to use them correctly and not overuse them. So, let's get to it.

Ambiguous Pronouns

A pronoun takes the place of a noun, but a pronoun must always refer clearly to its antecedent, which is the noun that the pronoun replaces. If the antecedent of the pronoun is unclear, then the sentence will be unclear as well. An ambiguous pronoun occurs when more than one possible antecedent exists.

Removing Ambiguity

Simply stated, a pronoun should refer clearly to one antecedent. When a sentence contains two possible antecedents, the reader will struggle to understand the sentence's meaning. For example, in the following sentence, there are two words could serve as the pronoun's antecedent.

  • When Abby joined Lucy in the business, she did not know that she would be a failure.

In this sentence, the first she seems to refer to Abby, but it is unclear whether the second she refers to Abby or Lucy. Fortunately, we can fix this. Instead, let's change the sentence to read:

  • When Abby joined Lucy in the business, she did not know that Lucy would be a failure.

When we replace one of the ambiguous pronouns with a name, the sentence becomes clear. Let's look at another example:

  • With her phone in one hand and her camera in the other, Mavis snapped photos with it as the parade passed.

It is unclear whether the word it in this sentence refers to the phone or the camera. The following sentence omits the ambiguous pronoun.

  • Mavis held the phone in one hand and the camera in the other, snapping photos with the camera as the parade passed.

Rewriting the Sentence

When a pronoun and its antecedent are separated by other words, the pronoun reference may be unclear. To avoid this issue, rewrite the sentence in order to place the pronoun closer to the antecedent to which it refers. Let's take a look at an example:

  • When Elizabeth dropped her computer on the table, it broke.

It is ambiguous because we don't know if it was the computer or the table that broke. Let's rewrite this sentence:

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