The Case of the Unclear Antecedent

Every once in a while, I’ll find myself hung up on a particular quirk of writing and develop a visceral twitch every time I see it in action. This post is about one of those twitches…

If there’s one thing I see writers do with alarming frequency, it’s sprinkle their material with sentences like “This needs to include sufficient information to develop a pipeline of qualified applicants” and “This, in turn, informs further actions.” But wait? What is “this” referring to? It’s probably not as clear as the author thinks it is, and that subtle lack of clarity, my friends, is what’s called an unclear antecedent.

Unclear antecedents (let’s call them UAs for short) happen all the time, because of COURSE the author knows very well what “this” refers to! Why, there was (probably) a sentence or two before this one that made everything perfectly clear… Right?

I can’t decide if it’s entertaining or frustrating to work with an enthusiastic author to get them to recognize UAs and to tell me what the heck “this” refers to. More often than not, I end up listening to an extended soliloquy about all the things that lead to “this” without ever getting to the point of which of those things (or category of things) we’re talking about in this particular sentence.

I’ve found only two things in this world that help me find those dratted UAs in my own writing:

  • Having a third party (either a human or a particular grammar tool) look for them; or,
  • Walking away from my writing and coming back no sooner than 24 hours later to re-read whatever it is I wrote.

When an author is in the brainstorming process, it’s really more important to just get the words out there. UAs are natural and a perfectly reasonable outcome of a flow of consciousness in writing. But your first draft should never, ever, be your last, and leaving this opportunity for confusion in your writing is a Bad Thing.

Think of it another way. If someone wants to quote that one sentence, can that one sentence stand on its own and make sense? So please, for the love of the written word, please go back and check for UAs in your writing!

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