Antecedents in the news!

Right about now, Richard Mourdock is probably wishing he had paid more attention in his eighth-grade English class.
Mourdock is, of course, the Republican Senate candidate from Indiana who got into hot water (that’s an idiom, meaning trouble) last week by saying that when rape results in pregnancy, “it is something that God intended.” But what does English have to do with it?
It would have been bad enough if Mourdock had said, as he apparently intended, that what God intended was the pregnancy. His implication that a rape might be God’s will outraged many people. But where they see a political controversy, I see a grammar point: an  unclear antecedent.  Just what did he mean by “it” — rape or pregnancy?
“What is it? Who is they?” I’ve written on any number of student papers this semester. It and they are pronouns, and pronouns require antecedents — the nouns they replace, generally to avoid repetition. The grammatical term derives from Latin: ante- meaning before (not to be confused with anti-, meaning against) + ced-, from cedere, meaning to go (the root of many words, including precede, proceed and succeed). As writers, you need to make sure your readers understand just what the antecedent is.
“Mark Owen,” the Navy SEAL who wrote the recent book about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, supplied another case in point during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” From the transcript:
Among the unfinished business was the crashed helicopter. It was a secret  design, loaded with secret gear. They had to blow it up. A message was passed to their explosives expert — called the E.O.D. man — “prep it to blow,” they said.  But the “it” in the message was a little vague.

Mark Owen: Well, the E.O.D. guy thinks he means prep the house to blow. So  there we are in the middle of this. And he’s like, “OK, roger that, prep it to  blow.” So he’s running around the first floor of the house, setting his charges,  getting ready to blow up the house. And somebody looks over at him is like,  “Dude, dude, what are you doing?” He’s like, “Ah, I’m prepping it to blow.” He’s  like, “Not the house, the helicopter.” Well, he hadn’t got the word that there  was a helicopter even down.

Do antecedents matter? If you had been a Navy SEAL still in that house, they certainly would have mattered to you — and your survivors.

Be careful about using a pronoun to refer to a whole sentence, a phrase or an idea, as I did in the second graf of this post: But what does English have to do with it? In this case, I think it’s clear that it refers to the situation described in the preceding sentence. But such may not always be the case, especially if there’s a noun — i.e., potential antecedent — nearby. What does (noun) have to do with it? is something of an idiom, as in the Tina Turner song “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” (A British variation: What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?)

Remember that pronouns need to agree in number with their antecedents. For example, in a recent piece by student:

Once inside, any guest would be hard pressed to say that they weren’t actually in a pocket-sized French cafe.

They has no plural antecedent. Presumably any guest is the antecedent, but that’s singular. Two possible fixes:

Any guest would be hard pressed to say that he wasn’t actually in a pocket-sized French cafe.

But that sentence courts accusations of sexism. You could say he or she, but that sounds clumsy. Often easiest fix is to pluralize:

Guests would be hard pressed to say that they weren’t actually in a pocket-sized French cafe.

Finally, remember that antecedent means ante + cedent — that is, coming before the pronoun. Some publications can be a little sloppy on that point. In fact, down the street at The New York Times, the construction it is used so often it seems practically knee-jerk, especially in anecdotal ledes:

As he compiled images for his book, the photographer Arthur Grace found countless pictures that he didn’t remember taking.

This one is wasy to fix:

As the photographer Arthur Grace compiled images for his book,  he found countless pictures that he didn’t remember taking.


(While) Compiling images for his book, the photographer Arthur Grace found countless pictures that he didn’t remember taking.

A variation on the theme:

Putting her Jimmy Choo years behind her, Tamara Mellon has plans, no doubt involving fashion.

In this case the pronoun her is a possessive, referring to Mellon, who isn’t introduced until later in the sentence. Better:

As Tamara Mellon puts her Jimmy Choo years behind her, she has plans, no doubt involving fashion.

In summary, remember these three simple rules for using a pronoun:

Put the antecedent before the pronoun.

Make sure they agree.

And above all, make the antecedent clear.










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