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Faulty Reference

Faulty reference occurs when a pronoun doesn't have a clear antecedent or lacks one altogether. We'll look at two types of faulty reference:

  • ambiguous pronouns
  • dangling pronouns


Ambiguous Pronouns

Pronouns can be ambiguous just as modifiers can. An ambiguous pronoun has two or more possible antecedents:

The girl asked her mother if she would be home in time to watch their favorite show.

I asked for a short stack of gluten free pancakes topped with blueberries, but got two cold plates with one pancake on each, with blueberries in a side dish, which is not my preference.

In the first sentence, we're not sure if the pronoun she refers to girl or to mother.

In the second sentence, we're not sure if the relative pronoun clause, which is not my preference, refers to one, all, or any combination of the ways in which the pancakes and blueberries were served.


Fixing Ambiguous Pronouns

There's more than one way to fix a sentence with an ambiguous pronoun. But before you revise, you need to analyze. Let's work on the first sample sentence:

The girl asked her mother if she would be home in time to watch their favorite show.

Step one: Determine what the sentence is supposed to mean.

If the word mother is the antecedent, the sentence means:

The girl asked if her mother would be home in time to watch their favorite show.

If the word girl is the antecedent, the sentence means:

The girl wanted to know if she would be home in time to watch their favorite show.

Step two: Revise the sentence to make the antecedent clear.

Let's suppose that the word mother is the antecedent. Take a look.

The girl asked her mother if her mother would be home in time to watch their favorite show.

This solution, while clarifying the antecedent, is also repetitive and dull. Rewriting with a direct quotation is one way to eliminate these drawbacks:

The girl asked her mother, "Will you be home in time to watch our favorite show?"

If the word girl is the antecedent, the sentence could read as follows:

The girl asked her mother, "Will I be home in time to watch our favorite show?"

Let's revise the second example:

I asked for a short stack of gluten free pancakes topped with blueberries, but got two cold plates with one pancake on each, with blueberries in a side dish, which is not my preference.

Here are two possible rewrites:

I asked for a short stack of gluten free pancakes topped with blueberries, but got two cold plates with one pancake on each, with blueberries in a side dish. Cold plates and blueberries on the side aren't my preference.

I asked for a short stack of gluten free pancakes topped with blueberries, but got two cold plates with one pancake on each, with blueberries in a side dish. My breakfast wasn't served the way I wanted it.

You get to solve a puzzle when you fix ambiguous pronouns!


Dangling Pronouns

A dangling pronoun lacks an antecedent much in the same way that a dangling modifier lacks something to describe:

When he looked back on his education, he realized that he never took any courses in psychology, yet he still wished he could be one.

The pronoun one has no antecedent. Did he wish that he could be courses in psychology? That solution doesn't make sense.

It's easy to create faulty reference. We might have all the details worked out in our minds but not in our writing. We understand what we mean to say, but our readers may not.


Fixing Dangling Pronouns

To fix a sentence with a missing antecedent, first determine what the missing antecedent should be. Then rewrite in order to supply it.

Here's the problem sentence again:

When he looked back on his education, he realized that he never took any courses in psychology, yet he still wished he could be one.

To establish the missing sentence element, we want to answer the question: What does he wish he could be? One logical answer is psychologist.

Here's a suggested rewrite:

 When he looked back on his education, he realized that he never took any courses in psychology, yet he still wished he could be a psychologist.

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