VPRs (Just who are they?)

VPRs. They are a part of our everyday life. What are VPRs? They are vague pronoun references. When I think of a VPR I think of the word they. Who are they? They seem to have a lot to say, and a lot of advice to give. That’s why knowing about vague pronoun references can help you add more clarity to your writing (and not confuse your readers!).

When I was teaching, helping students add clarity into their writing meant a lot of discussions about vague pronoun references. Often students would write sentences like This shows… or because of it… or That left them… or It lowered the value…. These phrases and sentences left a lot of room for interpretation for the reader. As a writer, you want to make sure that you guide your readers and that you don’t leave room for different interpretations, especially if you are writing about your opinions on a topic. Discussing opinions is a great time to be very clear.

In order to discuss VPRs, we need to understand the concept of antecedents. An antecedent is the noun in the sentence when later in the sentence (or the next sentence) there is a pronoun. Antecedents and pronouns go together like peanut butter and jelly. Alice and Kendal like to watch soccer. They are big fans. Antecedent: Alice and Kendal. Pronoun: They. A trick is to circle all of the its, theys, thems, thats in a document (or highlight them if you’re working online) and draw a line back to the antecedent. This trick is so helpful to see if a document has clear connections, and when to add some more words to add clarity.

The common mistakes with antecedents and pronouns fall into three categories: too many antecedents (meaning the pronoun could be either and it’s confusing), hidden antecedents (when the antecedent is really an adjective, but is used by the writer as the antecedent), and missing antecedents (think about the mysterious “they” we always read about).

So, how do you fix vauge pronoun references, or, even better, how do you avoid them? Easy: include nouns to add clarity.

Here are some examples to help you out:

  • Take the car out of the garage and fix it. The antecedent could be the car or the garage (an example of too many antecedents). So, let’s add clarity: Take the car out of the garage and fix the garage door.
  • The chocolate drawer was empty, but we were tired of eating it anyway. The antecedent seems to be the drawer because it is the main noun, not chocolate (this is the hidden antecedent problem). So reword the sentence: The chocolate drawer was empty, but we were tired of eating chocolate anyway.
  • Allan texted Callum’s phone all day, but he never responded. The antecedent seems to be the phone, again because it’s the main noun (Callum acts as the adjective, so again a hidden antecedent). So reword the sentence: Allan texted Callum’s phone all day, but Callum never responded.
  • It shows that they truly care about their dog. The antecedent is missing…what action are they referring to? So, let’s rearrange the sentence: The long walks show the owners truly care about their dog. Clear. Better. No questions.
  • The parents called the school, but they didn’t answer. Who are they? The school? The building can’t answer calls (yet…maybe buildings will talk in the future??). So, here is another easy fix to this missing antecedent: The parents called the school, but the office staff didn’t answer.

Ambiguity is great for interesting films or creative short stories, but not great when you are trying to communicate clearly to your audience.

This is a good place to maybe also talk about the importance of making sure that your pronouns match the number in your antecedent. Again, add clarity and help out your readers. For example, Each person should get their own chair. Technically, each person should get his or her own chair. That’s clunky, so reword it: All students should get their own chairs. Done! But maybe this idea is too much, so more on this another time perhaps.

When writing, avoid ambiguity and confusion by including clear antecedent–pronoun combinations for your readers. Clear communication is everything!