ACT English and SAT Writing Tips: Ambiguous Pronouns

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I must apologize for my absence: hurricane.jpgHurricane Matthew chased me from home for over a week and then kept me busy for another week when I came back. I am happy to settle back into a routine today, so let's get right to it: Ambiguous pronouns.

Ambiguous  means unclear  or open to more than one interpretation.  The movie Inception  has an ambiguous ending, as does the book The Giver  by Lois Lowry. Audiences and readers are left with questions about these endings because the authors have left them open to interpretation.

While book and movie endings are intentionally made ambiguous, pronouns should never be unclear. Ambiguous pronoun errors occur on the ACT and SAT when the proper antecedent has more than one possibility, leaving the reader to wonder whom or what the pronoun is referencing.

Ambiguous pronouns most often occur when the pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent:

    Once Ben told his dad about the accident, he  called a tow truck company.      [Incorrect]

Who called a tow truck company? Ben or his dad? The pronoun he  is ambiguous. The sentence can be fixed by restating the antecedent or by rewriting the sentence:

    Solution 1:  Once Ben told his dad about the accident, Ben called a tow truck company.    [Correct]
    Solution 2:  Ben called a tow truck company after he told his dad about the accident.    [Correct]

Sometimes you can replace the pronoun with a noun, as in the first solution. In some instances, though, this correction can create an awkward sentence, and you must rearrange the sentence entirely, as was done in the second example.

Ambiguous pronoun questions sometimes catch students off guard when a noun does not reveal gender:




We do not know whether the assistant was male or female, do we? Do not get caught in gender role assumption on the ACT and SAT! The pronoun he  could be referring to Einstein  or to the assistant.  Choice (C) corrects this sentence by identifying who won the Nobel Prize. Choices (B) and (D) use incorrect verb tense and choice (D) changes the meaning of the original sentence by awarding the prize to two people instead of just one. 

More difficult ambiguous pronoun questions occur with the use of that  and it.  Consider an example:

This sentence lacks a clear antecedent for that (of other state agencies).  Do other state agencies have similar records of warnings and citations? Or do they have the same water quality? Or do they share the same reason for monitoring? Or do they monitor the water in the same fashion? The context of the sentence and our prior knowledge tell us that other state agencies have the same reason for monitoring,  but this must be made clear in the sentence:

Based on the record of warnings and citations issued, it is evident that water quality is the reason for the department's monitoring of the lake, as it is for other state agencies.     [Correct]

To correct the sentence, we added a conjunction and a verb and changed the pronoun. The clear antecedent, reason, is the reference for it. Now the comparison is more clear; X is the reason for Y as X is for Z. Choice (C) is correct.

Watch for ambiguous pronouns like that  and it  that have no clear antecedent and be prepared to change an entire phrase or clause in order to make the reference more clear.

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Image: "hurricane" courtesy of Kabsik Park