Editing Tips #5: Antecedents

As writers, we usually know the intent behind the words we use. Unfortunately, this can cause us to miss ambiguity in our writing. That’s why it’s so important to establish clear antecedents.

An antecedent is a word in a paragraph or sentence that is later replaced by pronouns or substitutes. Generally, the antecedent is the closest noun to the left of a pronoun in a sentence. See below:

  • John took his dog to the park. This was the second time he had gone this week. There, they played fetch, went for a run, and socialized with other dogs and their owners.

In the paragraph above, John, dog, and park are all antecedents. John is the antecedent for the pronouns “his” in the first sentence and “he” in the second. Park is the antecedent for “there” in the third sentence. John + dog is the antecedent for “they” in the third sentence.

Let’s look at another paragraph where the antecedents are less clear:

  • Sean jogged to our house and knocked on the door. Sam glanced at Jim and rolled his eyes, then got up to let him in.

The intent of the sentence above is for Sam to let Sean in. But because of the way the sentence is constructed, the reader might get the impression that Sam is letting Jim in and not Sean. Even if the reader is likely to understand the intent, it slows down the reading process, which is never our intent.

A better version of the paragraph about Sean is:

  • Sean jogged to our house and knocked on the door. Sam glanced at Jim and rolled his eyes, then got up to let Sean in.

We use pronouns and synonyms to avoid repetition, which is generally frowned on in English writing, but we shouldn’t do this to the point where it’s unclear who is doing what.

About Eytan Bernstein

40. Bay Area-based writer/editor/RPG designer.
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