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What is an Antecedent? - Definition, Meaning & Examples

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  • 0:05 Antecedents
  • 2:40 Pronoun-Antecedents Agreement
  • 4:52 Indefinite Pronoun Antecedents
  • 6:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

If you have a pronoun in a sentence, you'll also need to have an antecedent. In this lesson, find out what an antecedent is as well as some of the basic rules for avoiding vague pronoun references and for making sure that you have pronoun-antecedent agreement.

Antecedents

The astronaut could not remember where he parked.

Can you spot the pronoun in this sentence? You may remember learning that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of or refers to a noun. A noun is a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea. Pronouns basically help us avoid saying the same nouns over and over. In our example sentence, the word 'he' is a pronoun that takes the place of the noun 'astronaut'. Without the pronoun in this sentence, we'd have to say, The astronaut could not remember where the astronaut parked.

There's a special grammatical term that we use to name the word 'astronaut' in this sentence, beyond just calling it 'the noun.' In this sentence, 'astronaut' is an antecedent. An antecedent is the word that a pronoun replaces or refers to. Any time that you have a pronoun, you'll have an antecedent, even if it's not in the very same sentence. This makes sense; if we didn't have an antecedent for every pronoun, we'd be left with a lot of confusion.

Imagine that someone runs by you screaming, Run! It is coming! In the second sentence, the word 'it' is a pronoun. Notice that the person who screamed this warning has given you no clue as to what 'it' is. There's no antecedent - just confusion. And maybe a little terror, given the context. This would be a case, then, in which an antecedent would be pretty useful. If someone comes to you and says, Run! The puppy is coming, and it likes to play!, you'd be provided with both a pronoun ('it') and an antecedent ('puppy') as well as a whole lot of clarity.

Keep in mind that, in general, you should avoid vague pronoun references. A vague pronoun reference occurs when there's no antecedent provided at all, or when there's more than one possible antecedent. For example, try to avoid saying things like, 'They say you should never skip breakfast.' There's no antecedent there, so it's not clear who says that.

Work on avoiding multiple possible antecedents, too. For example, if I told you that, I just talked to Sarah and Michelle, and it turns out that she is a serial killer, you might really want some more specific information from me.

Specifically, you'd want to know which of our possible antecedents - 'Sarah' or 'Michelle' - is the one that the pronoun 'she' is referring to. This type of confusion can usually be cleared up by eliminating the unclear pronoun altogether and simply repeating the noun that you're referencing. For example, you could say, I just talked to Sarah and Michelle, and it turns out that Sarah is a serial killer.

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

There are a few rules to keep in mind when you deal with pronouns and antecedents. First, remember that a pronoun and its antecedent must always agree in number. Basically, if an antecedent is singular, then the pronoun that replaces it or refers to it must also be singular. If a word is singular, that means that there is just one. For example, you might say, This class is tough, and it goes by quickly.

In this sentence, the antecedent is 'class,' and it's singular as we're referring to just one class. The pronoun that replaces the antecedent later in the sentence is 'it,' and that's the right pronoun to use, because it's also singular. So the speaker here has correctly and consistently spoken about one class throughout the sentence.

The flip side of our rule stating that singular antecedents must be paired up with singular pronouns is the rule that a plural antecedent must have a corresponding plural pronoun that replaces or refers to it. If a word is plural, that means that there is more than one.

Let's take a look at an example sentence to illustrate this: These classes are tough, and they go by quickly. In this sentence, the antecedent is 'classes,' which is a plural noun. We're talking about more than one class here. The pronoun that replaces the antecedent is 'they,' and that's the right pronoun to use, because it's also plural. So again, the speaker here has correctly and consistently spoken about more than one class throughout the sentence.

There's a second basic rule to keep in mind when you're working with pronouns and antecedents: A pronoun and its antecedent must always agree in gender. That means that if an antecedent is feminine, then the corresponding pronoun must also be feminine. For example, you might say, My sister is at the top of her class. In this sentence, the antecedent is 'sister,' which is a feminine noun. The correct pronoun is used here, as 'her' is a feminine pronoun.

Similarly, if an antecedent is masculine, then the corresponding pronoun must also be masculine. A sentence illustrating this would be, Juan is a very skilled doctor, and he is very caring, too. In this sentence, the antecedent is 'Juan,' which is a masculine proper noun. The correct pronoun is used here, as 'he' is a masculine pronoun.

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