Vague pronouns are a huge problem for my students, even the advanced ones. “This” seems to be the biggest culprit. Many students will give several examples of a character’s behavior, for instance why they think Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice is such a clod. Then they will summarize with a sentence that begins, “This is why…” and the this doesn’t refer back to anything in particular. The cartoon I created above humorously addresses the various mistakes that can result from vague pronoun reference.
Every pronoun should refer back to a specific noun. This noun is called the antecedent of the pronoun. One problem is that grammar and spelling tools in word processing programs rearely catch vague pronouns. Look at the following sentence:
They say eating pretzels makes you a genius.
In this sentence, “they” doesn’t refer back to a specific noun. You can fix this error by changing the pronoun to a specific noun:
A group of doctors has said that eating pretzels makes you a genius.
This sentence has another common pronoun error:
Norman’s brother said that he ate pretzels before his math test.
Does “he” refer to Norman, or his brother? We don’t know for sure. You can fix this error by replacing the pronoun:
Norman’s brother said that Norman ate pretzels before his math test.
Another common mistake:
I had a pretzel stuck in my throat once. It was scary.
“It” does not refer back to a specific noun, but instead to the entire dependent clause. Eliminate the pronoun.
I had a pretzel stuck in my throat once. That experience was scary.
You can always try to rephrase a sentence to fix a vague pronoun as well:
One scary experience from my childhood was when I had a pretzel caught in my throat.
If you would like the comic up above as well as more comics dealing with common sentence problems, please visit my store.