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Pronoun Usage – Myths and Facts

Before delving into the article, let us look at some sentences and test our knowledge of pronoun usage.

  1. The UV radiation emitted by the Sun is carcinogenic and hazardous in ozone-free areas.
  2. The UV radiation emitted by the Sun is highly dangerous because it has a very low wavelength.
  3. A solar flare emitted by the Sun can destroy a communication satellite because scientists estimated that its temperature is high enough to accelerate further damage.

In terms of pronoun usage, which of the above sentence(s) do you think is/are incorrect?

Pronouns usage GMAT - Debunking Myths 

Read on for the answers. 🙂

 

Students usually falter with the usage of pronouns because of some existing myths regarding pronouns. The main aim of this article is to present four such myths and break them down once and for all. After reading this article, you’ll have a much better understanding of correct pronoun usage and be able to identify pronoun errors.

Before we go on to talk about myths, let me reinforce the underlying principle behind pronoun usage.

 

Pronoun Usage Principle

 

This is the only principle behind pronoun usage.

 

With this point in mind, let us now revisit the sentences in the above exercise.

  1. The UV radiation emitted by the Sun is carcinogenic and hazardous in ozone-free areas.

There isn’t any pronoun used in this sentence and the sentence is correct.

  1. The UV radiation emitted by the Sun is highly dangerous because it has a very low wavelength.

There are three nouns in this sentence. “UV radiation”, “Sun” and “wavelength”.

 

Now keeping our above-mentioned principle in mind, let us see which one among these three can be a logical antecedent.

  1. Is “UV radiation” a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence?
    In other words, does the statement “UV radiation has a very low wavelength” make sense in this context?
    Yes. It does. It is perfectly logical to talk about the wavelength of radiation. The sentence “UV radiation has a very low wavelength and so the UV emitted by the Sun is highly dangerous” makes sense in this context. So “UV radiation” is the logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.
  2. Is “Sun” a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence?
    Again, ask yourself the following.
    Does the statement “Sun has a very low wavelength” make sense in this context?
    No. The statement isn’t logical. The sentence “Sun has a very low wavelength” doesn’t make sense at all. So “Sun” isn’t a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.
  3. Is “wavelength” a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence? To answer this question, ask yourself the following.
    Does the statement “wavelength has a very low wavelength” make sense in this context?

    No. It doesn’t. It isn’t logical at all.  So “wavelength” isn’t a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.

 

Pronoun Usage image 3

 

So we have only one logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence. So this sentence is correct.

 

  1. A solar flare emitted by the Sun can destroy a communication satellite because scientists estimated that its temperature is high enough to accelerate further damage.

There are four possible antecedents in this sentence. They are “solar flare”, “Sun”, “communication satellite” and “temperature”.

 

Now following a similar approach as in the previous example

  1. Does the statement “Solar flare’s temperature is high enough to accelerate further damage to a communication satellite” make sense in this context?
    Yes. It is perfectly logical. So “Solar flare” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.
  2. Does the statement “Sun’s temperature is high enough to accelerate further damage to a communication satellite” make sense in this context?
    Yes! Therefore “Sun” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.
  3. Does the statement “Communication Satellite’s temperature is high enough to accelerate further damage to a communication satellite” make sense in this context?
    Yes. A satellite might have high temperature. It does make sense. So “Communication satellite” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.
  4. Does the statement “Temperature’s temperature is high enough to accelerate further damage to a communication satellite” make sense in this context?
    NO! It is not at all logical to say so. Therefore “temperature” is not a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.

 Pronoun Usage image 4

 

The pronoun “it” in this sentence has more than one logical antecedent. So there is pronoun ambiguity in this sentence.

In the above examples, wherever a pronoun is used, we replaced the pronoun with the possible antecedents and checked if the sentences made sense.

If no antecedents make sense, we say there is no logical antecedent to the pronoun.

If more than one antecedent makes sense, we say that there is pronoun ambiguity in the sentence.



In the context of GMAT:

Pronoun errors are quite often tested on GMAT and GMAT continues to confuse students with these errors. Furthermore pronoun errors are not as deterministic as SV errors or Modifier errors are.   Therefore, pronoun error should be used as a last reason to reject an option choice, only after all other deterministic errors have been used in the process of elimination. Such scenarios arise in quite a few difficult questions on the GMAT.

 

Debunking myths about pronouns:

So now we will look at some of the myths students have regarding the usage of pronouns and will debunk them. Given below in the table are some of the most common myths surrounding pronoun usage and the actual facts associated with them.

 

Myth

Fact

A pronoun can refer only to the nearest noun Long Distance Relationships can work! (Between antecedents and pronouns J )
A pronoun in a clause cannot refer to a noun in another clause Love (between antecedent and pronoun) knows no boundaries!
Antecedent of a pronoun cannot lie in a prepositional phrase Prepositional Phrases are not black holes! Antecedents can come out of them!!
Antecedent should always appear before the respective pronoun. At times the best need not appear first!

 

 

Myth 1: A pronoun can refer only to the nearest noun.

 

 

Source of this myth: This myth usually can arise when a student somehow confuses pronoun usage with modifier usage. (Modifiers usually tend to modify the nearest entity. Remember?)

 

Let’s debunk this myth: First I will present simple examples and then substantiate my point with Official examples.

 

Simple Example 1: Although the discovery of America was not intentional and Columbus actually believed that he discovered India, it is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History.

 

The pronoun “he” unambiguously refers to the noun “Columbus”. So the usage of “he” is correct.
What about the pronoun “it”? Is it used correctly or is there any error in its usage.

 

In the sentence, what are the possible antecedents for the singular pronoun “it”?

 

“Discovery, America, India, Modern History”.

 

Now let us look at the following sentences and see which one of them makes sense.

 

  1. The discovery (of America) is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History.
  2. America is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History.
  3. India is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History.
  4. Modern History is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History.

Does the first sentence make sense in this context?

Yes. It absolutely does.

 

The discovery (of America) is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History, even though it (the discovery) was unintentional.This makes perfect sense. Therefore “discovery” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” even though the antecedent is far away from the pronoun.

 

What about the second sentence? Does it make sense in this context?

 

First of all the sentence “America is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History” itself doesn’t make sense! (How can a country be a turning point in History? Events, Actions etc. can be turning points in History, not Countries or other places.)

 

So it isn’t even logical to say “America is widely acclaimed as one of the major turning points in Modern History even though the discovery of America was unintentional”!

 

Therefore “America” is not a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence.

 

We can reject “India” too on similar reasoning. (Even though “India” is the nearest noun.)

 

Now what about the fourth sentence?

 

The sentence itself isn’t logical. First of all History as a whole cannot be a turning point. The major events in a history are considered as its turning points. Moreover the sentence is same as saying “A monkey is one of the most commonly found animal among monkeys”.

 

Therefore “Modern History” is not a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence.

 

Therefore the pronoun “it” has only one logical antecedent (discovery) and the sentence is correct.

 

 

 

This sentence reiterates the fact that the distance between a pronoun and its antecedent doesn’t matter as long as there is only one antecedent which is logical”.

 

 

Please note that this doesn’t mean that pronoun cannot refer to a nearer noun. Consider the following example.

 

Simple Example 2Even though there was a chance of attack for the lion, it walked away without harming the deer.

 

Here in this sentence, as you can see, the pronoun “it” can logically refer only to the noun “lion”. Look at the following two sentences and see which one of them makes sense in this context.

 

  1. The lion walked away without harming the deer, even though there was a chance of attack for the lion. (Perfect!!)
  2. The deer walked away without harming the deer, even though there was a chance of attack for the lion. (Is this even logical?)

The first sentence makes perfect sense and therefore we can definitely say that “lion” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.

 

On the other hand, the second sentence isn’t even logical. So “deer” is not the logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.

 

Therefore the pronoun “it” in this sentence has only one logical antecedent (lion) and it so happens in this case that the pronoun is referring to the nearest noun.

 

 

 

Note that this need not always be the case as we have already seen in Example 1.

 

Now let us look at a couple of official sentences.

 

Official Sentence 1: Although Napoleon’s army entered Russia with far more supplies than for any previous campaign, it had provisions for only twenty-four days.

 

Here, even though the noun “Napoleon’s army” is very far from the pronoun “it”, there is no error in the usage. The pronoun “it” can logically refer only to the noun “Napoleon’s army” and not “Russia” or “campaign”.

 

It is not logical to say that “Although Napoleon’s army entered Russia with more supplies, Russia had provisions for only twenty four days”.

 

How do the supplies with Napoleon’s army matter to Russia?

 

The amount of provisions with Russia are independent of what Napoleon’s army has.

 

Similarly, it is not logical to say that “Although Napoleon’s army entered Russia with more supplies, campaign had provisions for only twenty-four days.” (A campaign cannot have provisions. Note that in the context of this sentence, a campaign is a military mission and provisions are supplies for survival.)

 

However, it is logical to say that “…Napoleon’s army had provisions for only twenty-four days.”

 

 

 

 

Therefore there is only one logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence and the sentence is correct. (Even though the antecedent is far away from the pronoun).

 

Official Sentence 2: Because an oversupply of computer chips has sent prices plunging, the manufacturer has announced that it will cut production by closing its factories for two days a month.

 

Here both the pronouns “it” and “its” can refer only to the noun “manufacturer”, even though the noun “production” is nearer to the pronouns.

 

 

 

(Observe that except for “manufacturer”, no other noun makes sense to be referred to by “it” or “its” in the context of the sentence.)

 

 

Summary: To summarize, wherever a pronoun is used, we replaced the pronoun with the possible antecedents and checked if the sentences made sense.

 

If no antecedents make sense, we say there is no logical antecedent to the pronoun.

 

If more than one antecedent makes sense, we say that there is pronoun ambiguity in the sentence.

 

 

 

Fact to be noted: We have now successfully debunked a myth.

 

 

 

Exercise Question 1: Banana corp., which is aware of the fact that it has a high likelihood of producing faults, continues to use the new Flexi Mixie Screen.

 

Now, what about this sentence? Is the pronoun “it” correctly used in this sentence?

 

The possible antecedents of the singular pronoun “it” are “Banana corp., fact, likelihood, and Flexi Screen”.

 

Now look at the following sentences and think which one of them makes sense in this context.

  1. Banana corp. has a high likelihood of producing faults (when they use the Flexi Mixie Screen)
  2. Fact has a high likelihood of producing faults.
  3. Likelihood has a high likelihood of producing faults.
  4. Flexi Screen has a high likelihood of producing faults. (when Banana corp uses it)

 

The sentence (a) makes perfect sense. Therefore “Banana Corp.” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.

 

The sentences (b) and (c) aren’t logical and don’t make sense.

 

What about sentence (d)?

 

Yes. It does make sense in this context. “it” can refer to “Flexi Screen” giving the meaning “Banana corp knows that the Flexi Screen has a high likelihood of producing faults but still uses the Screen”.

 

This is a perfectly logical meaning and therefore “Flexi Mixie Screen” is a logical antecedent of the pronoun “it”.

 

Since we have more than one logical antecedent of the pronoun in this sentence, there is an error in pronoun usage.

 

Because there is clear pronoun ambiguity in this sentence, placement of the possible noun antecedents does not even matter in such a situation.

 

 

 

 

 

Myth 2: A pronoun in a clause cannot refer to a noun in another clause.

 

Source of this myth: This myth arises in which a pronoun lies in another Independent Clause (IC). Students usually tend to think that a pronoun of one IC cannot refer to a noun in another IC as a single IC can denote a complete idea by itself.

 

Let’s debunk this myth: We need to keep in mind that an IC + IC construction is considered as one big IC. (Similarly an IC + DC construction is also a big IC). Therefore a pronoun can refer to a noun in a previous clause if the two are connected properly.

 

 

Simple example 1: The King of Atlantis is fond of his white tiger, but the citizens are afraid of it.

 

Look at the sentence structure below.

  • The King of Atlantis is fond of his white tiger,
  • but the citizens are afraid of it.

Here, the pronoun “it” unambiguously refers to “white tiger” even though the antecedent is in another clause.

 

(Observe that this sentence is an IC+IC construction joined by a “Comma + But”)

 

“The citizens are afraid of the white tiger” makes perfect sense in this context and so “white tiger” is the logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” (even though both of them are different clauses)

 

Note that this doesn’t mean that a pronoun always refers to a noun in a different clause.

 

(Observe that the pronoun “his” refers to “King of Atlantis” and both of them are in the same clause).

 

Consider the following example.

 

Simple example 2: The King of Atlantis takes care of his citizens; no wonder he is loved by them.

 

The structure of this sentence is follows.

 

  • The King of Atlantis takes care of his citizens;
  • no wonder he is loved by them.

Here in this sentence the pronouns “his” and “he” can refer only to “King of Atlantis”.

 

Similarly the pronoun “them” can refer only to “citizens”.

 

There are no other possible antecedents for these pronouns.

 

Moreover the pronoun usage makes perfect sense in this sentence.

 

Therefore there is no error in the pronoun usage.

 

The thing to be noted here in this sentence is that the pronoun “them” and its antecedent “citizens “are in different clauses. Similarly the pronoun “he” and its antecedent “King of Atlantis” are in different clauses.

 

However, the pronoun “his” and its antecedent “King of Atlantis” are in the same clause.

 

So this example should serve as proof to the fact that the pronoun and its antecedent can be same or different clauses. The position of the antecedent doesn’t matter as long as it is logical.

 

Now let us look at a couple of official sentences.

 

 

Official Sentence 1: The budget for education reflects the administration’s demand that the money be controlled by local school districts, but it allows them to spend the money only on teachers, not on books, computers, or other materials or activities. 

 

The structure of the sentence is as follows.

  • The budget for education reflects the administration’s demand
    • that the money be controlled by local school districts,
    • but it allows them to spend the money only on teachers, not on books, computers, or other materials or activities.

 

This is an officially correct sentence. (GMAT PREP)

 

There is only one logical antecedent (local school districts) of the pronoun “them”.

 

However there are four possible antecedents (budget, education, demand and money) for the pronoun “it”. Now consider the following sentences.

 

  1. Budget allows school districts to spend money only on teachers.
  2. Education allows school districts to spend money only on teachers.
  3. Demand allows school districts to spend money only on teachers.
  4. Money allows school districts to spend money only on teachers.

 

As you can see, only sentence (a) makes sense.

 

Hence there is only one logical antecedent (budget) for the pronoun “it” and the sentence is correct.

 

Observe that both the pronouns have their antecedents in another clause.

 

Let us look at another official sentence.

 

 

Official Sentence 2: The peaks of a mountain range, acting like rocks in a streambed, produce ripples in the air flowing over them; the resulting flow pattern, with crests and troughs that remain stationary although the air that forms them is moving rapidly, is known as “standing waves.”

 

This is an officially correct sentence. (OG12 #95) The structure of the sentence is as follows.

 

  • The peaks of a mountain range, acting like rocks in a streambed, produce ripples in the air flowing over them;
  • the resulting flow pattern, with crests and troughs
    • that remain stationary 
    • although the air
      • that forms them
  • is moving rapidly,
  • is known as “standing waves.”

 

The pronoun “them” is referring to “crests and troughs” which is in a different clause altogether. (Note that the other possible nouns do not make logical sense as antecedents).

 

Therefore we can again say that the positions of the antecedent and pronoun do not matter as long as the reference is unique and logical.

 

 

Summary: To summarize, wherever a pronoun is used, we replaced the pronoun with the possible antecedents and checked if the sentences made sense.

 

If no antecedents make sense, we say there is no logical antecedent to the pronoun.

 

If more than one antecedent makes sense, we say that there is pronoun ambiguity in the sentence.

 

 

Fact to be noted:

 

Exercise Question 1: Every student must put more effort while studying it because if a student doesn’t have a good grasp on the concept of fractions, they will face difficulty in understanding Algebra.

 

Let us look at the structure of this sentence.

  • Every student must put more effort while studying it
    • because if a student doesn’t have a good grasp on the concept of fractions,
    • they will face difficulty in understanding Algebra.

Now what about this sentence? Are the pronouns “it” and “they” correct in their usage?

 

Observe that there are no logical antecedents of the pronoun “they”.

 

The sentence talks about individual students. So “they” has no logical antecedents.

 

Therefore there is an error in the usage of the pronoun “they”.

 

What about the pronoun “it”?

 

Look at the following sentences.

 

  1. Every student must put more effort while studying the concept of fractions because if a student doesn’t have a good grasp on the concept of fractions, the student will face difficulty in understanding Algebra.
  2. Every student must put more effort while studying Algebra because if a student doesn’t have a good grasp on the concept of fractions, the student will face difficulty in understanding Algebra.

Both of them make perfect sense.

 

The first sentence is lays emphasis on the fact that students should put more effort in strengthening their basics (Concept of Fractions).

 

The second sentence says that students who are weak at basics must put more effort while studying advanced topics (Algebra).

 

We have more than one logical antecedent of the pronoun “it” in this sentence and therefore there is an error in the usage of the pronoun “it”.   Notice that it does not matter which clause the antecedent resides in.  Both make logical sense and hence the ambiguity.

 

 

 

Myth 3: Antecedent of a pronoun cannot lie in a prepositional phrase.

 

Source of this myth: This myth seems to have its origins in the rule that the subject of a sentence cannot lie inside a prepositional phrase.   Students mistakenly extend this rule to pronouns.

 

Let’s debunk this myth: We know that a subject cannot lie inside a prepositional phrase. However, a pronoun can refer to any noun in the sentence as long as the reference is unique and logical. Let us now look at some examples.

 

Simple example 1: King George is the ruler of the largest empire, its size as large as a continent.

 

Here, the pronoun “its” unambiguously refers to “empire” (The pronoun “its” cannot be used to refer to people.).

 

Notice carefully that “empire” is in a prepositional phrase.

 

 

Simple example 2: The tail of a monkey has more muscles in it than that of any other animal.

 

The pronoun “it” refers to “tail” and not “monkey” (“it” cannot refer to “monkey” because “The tail of a monkey has more muscles in monkey” doesn’t make sense.)

 

Observe that in this case, the pronoun “it” refers to the head of the noun phrase and not the noun in the prepositional phrase.

 

Official Sentence: The intricate structure of the compound insect eye, with its hundreds of miniature eyes called ommatidia, helps explain why scientists have assumed that it evolved independently of the vertebrate eye. 

 

This is an official sentence.

 

The possible antecedents of the pronoun “it” are “structure, compound insect eye, and vertebrate eye”

 

Now consider the following sentences.

 

  1. The intricate structure of the compound insect eye helps explain why scientists have assumed that the intricate structure evolved independently of the vertebrate eye. (Something doesn’t sound right here.)
  2. The intricate structure of the compound insect eye helps explain why scientists have assumed that the compound insect eye evolved independently of the vertebrate eye. (This makes perfect sense).
  3. The intricate structure of the compound insect eye helps explain why scientists have assumed that the vertebrate eye evolved independently of the vertebrate eye. (This is not even logical).

The problem with sentence (a) is similar to the problem in the below sentence.

 

  • Monkeys explain why scientists assume that humans evolved from monkeys.

Now consider the below variation.

 

  • The genetic features of monkeys explain why scientists assume that humans evolved from monkeys.

Do you see why sentence (i) sounds illogical now.

 

Sentence (a) above has a similar meaning error.

 

So there is only one logical antecedent (compound insect eye) for the pronoun “it” in this sentence.

 

Therefore the sentence is correct.

 

Once again, note that the pronoun refers to the noun (compound insect eye) inside a prepositional phrase.

 

Summary: To summarize, wherever a pronoun is used, we replaced the pronoun with the possible antecedents and checked if the sentences made sense.

 

If no antecedents make sense, we say there is no logical antecedent to the pronoun.

 

If more than one antecedent makes sense, we say that there is pronoun ambiguity in the sentence.

 

 

Fact to be noted:

 

 

 

 

Myth 4: Antecedent should always appear before the respective pronoun.

 

Source of this myth: This could have emerged from a misinterpretation of the word “antecedent” (which literally means something that comes before).

 

Let’s debunk this myth: Once again, we need to keep in mind that the only underlying principle behind pronoun usage is that “There should be a unique noun to which the pronoun can refer and the reference should be logical.” The position of the noun doesn’t matter. (Even though we call it an antecedent).

 

Simple Example 1: Although it is a big firm, ABC Corporation rarely recruits from top colleges.

 

The pronoun “it” unambiguously refers to “ABC Corporation”. (Even though the pronoun “it” appears before the noun “ABC Corporation”).

 

Simple Example 2: Despite the excitement in his life, Sherlock Holmes retired to the Sussex Downs to take up beekeeping.

 

Here the pronoun “his” refers to the noun “Sherlock Holmes” and the sentence is grammatically correct. (Even though the pronoun “his” comes before the antecedent “Sherlock Holmes”). This is because the only underlying principle (as we have seen already) in pronoun usage is “A pronoun should have only one Logical Antecedent.” The position of the antecedent is irrelevant.

 

 

Official Sentence 1:

 

His studies of ice-polished rocks in his Alpine homeland, far outside the range of present-day glaciers, led Louis Agassiz in 1837 to propose the concept of an age in which great ice sheets existed in what are now temperate areas.

 

This is an official sentence where the pronoun precedes the antecedent. The pronoun “his” properly and unambiguously refers to the noun “Louis Agassiz”.

 

This sentence once again reiterates that the placement of antecedent doesn’t matter and that the underlying principle of pronoun usage is “A pronoun should have only one Logical Antecedent.”

 

 

 

Official Sentence 2:

 

As its sales of computer products have surpassed those of measuring instruments, the company has become increasingly willing to compete for the mass market sales it would in the past have conceded to rivals.

 

This is a correct official sentence. The pronoun “its” unambiguously refers to the noun “company”. Similarly the pronoun “it” can refer only to the noun “company”. (Observe that there are no other singular nouns in the sentence).

 

Summary: To summarize, wherever a pronoun is used, we replaced the pronoun with the possible antecedents and checked if the sentences made sense.

 

If no antecedents make sense, we say there is no logical antecedent to the pronoun.

 

If more than one antecedent makes sense, we say that there is pronoun ambiguity in the sentence.

 

 

Fact to be noted:

 

 

 

Takeaways:

 

I hope this article helps you guys in understanding the meaning of a sentence quickly and without any ambiguity.

Cheers!!

 

 

 

Exercise:

In each of the following sentences, try to identify if the pronoun usage is correct and the possible logical antecedent(s) for each pronoun.

 

  1. Once they had seen the report from the medical examiner, the investigators had no doubt that the body recovered from the river was that of the man who had attempted to escape from the state prison.
  2. The gyrfalcon has survived a close brush with extinction; its numbers are now five times greater than when the use of DDT was sharply restricted in the 1970s
  3. The White Tiger of the Snow Capped Everest Mountain prefers to stay inside caves because it has inadequate fur to protect itself from the freezing climate of the Himalayan region.
  4. The White Tiger is nicknamed “the Lightning” because it moves very quickly.
  5. The increase in the vulnerability of an average user to malicious attacks didn’t escape the notice of Computer Security Experts who say that it might be due to the onset of the much feared intelligent virus “AvaNova”, the IQ of which exceeds 170.

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