Now that we have a thorough understanding of nouns—what they are and how to use them (for Mots Justes’s six-part series nouns, start here)—let’s move on to a part of speech that is used in place of a noun: the pronoun. Pronouns are handy because they help us avoid needless repetition:
Ann planned a baby shower for Ann’s friend.
Ann planned a baby shower for her friend.
The word or phrase a pronoun replaces—in this case Ann—is called an antecedent. An antecedent can be a noun, another pronoun, a phrase, or a clause. Usually it appears in the same sentence as the pronoun replacing it, but sometimes, if the reference remains clear, it can be found in a preceding sentence.
This is imperative: a pronoun’s antecedent must always be clear to the reader. Make sure that your pronoun isn’t missing an antecedent:
The baby’s mother provided it to Ann so that she would know whom to invite.
What is “it”? In this case, we can guess it might be a guest list, but without an antecedent, we can’t be sure.
Also be careful that there isn’t more than one possible antecedent for a pronoun:
The baby’s mother and Ann agreed that she would provide the decorations.
Who is “she”—the baby’s mother or Ann?
Watch out, too, for multiple pronouns and antecedents in the same sentence:
Ann, the baby’s mother, and her best friend agreed that she would plan the menu while he would provide the entertainment.
Whose best friend is it—Ann’s or the baby’s mother? Who’s going to plan the menu—Ann or the baby’s mother? And who is providing entertainment—the baby or the best friend (and are they even male)?
Pronouns Without Antecedents
A pronoun doesn’t always have to have an antecedent as long as it doesn’t create confusion. First- and second-person pronouns almost never need antecedents, as they refer to whomever is speaking or being spoken to:
I bought the baby my favorite book from childhood: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
What is your favorite children’s story?
You could supply an antecedent for a second-person pronoun in direct address:
Ann, what is your favorite children’s story?
There are also pronouns, called expletive pronouns, that don’t have antecedents:
It is time for the party.
In addition, the relative pronoun what and interrogative pronouns who, which, and what never have antecedents:
Who was late for the party?
Finally, they is often used without an antecedent—
They say a good party isn’t complete without alcohol.
—but careful readers will want to know, “Who says?”
Do you have a question about the comma? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.
Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.