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Not an Insect, Not Your Relative: The Grammatical Antecedent

By Theda C. Snyder

A grammatical antecedent is an intrinsic part of grammar. Using one incorrectly can cause confusion in your reader. Here’s how to avoid that.

grammatical antecedent

“The mayor’s spokesperson has filed a complaint demanding that he be prosecuted for perjury.”

I had to read it again. This person filed a complaint against himself? Oh, I said to myself when I figured it out. It’s the mayor he wants prosecuted.

Another Case of a Confusing or Missing Antecedent

Pronouns like “he,” “she” and “it” substitute for a noun used earlier, called the antecedent. The pronoun refers back to the antecedent noun. The general rule is that the pronoun’s antecedent is the noun closest to the pronoun. You can therefore understand my momentary confusion.

Keep It Together

One way to avoid a misunderstanding is to repeat the referenced noun. That would have been a good choice here: The mayor’s spokesperson has filed a complaint demanding that the mayor be prosecuted for perjury.

A pronoun also frequently substitutes for an entire phrase or clause. That’s what’s happening in sentences starting with “it” and a version of “to be.” Technically, this is a post-noun because the reference comes after instead of before.

Carole King sang, “It used to be so easy living here with you.” A more concise lyric without the pronoun would be, “Living here with you used to be so easy,” but that probably wouldn’t have fit the song’s meter.

Pro-form, Not Pro Forma

Words functioning as parts of speech other than nouns can also refer back to an antecedent. The catch-all term for these substitute words is “pro-form.” That could be, for example, a pro-adjective or pro-adverb. Or, as many grammarians do, you could just call them all pronouns.

Don’t confuse “pro-form” with “pro forma,” something done or created as a matter of form. You know, like a pretend interview for a position already filled.

I Don’t Understand What You’re Talking About

When you get this feedback [did you see “this” as the pro-form for an entire sentence?], your reader or listener may be reacting literally, not argumentatively.

Here is a sentence from a mediation brief submitted to me:

“The defendant knew the importance of this document.”

Huh? What document? I wasted time going over the preceding pages again. Nope. The antecedent for “this” was missing. I would have to ask the author.

Not every reader will be so diligent. A judge may downgrade your brief if the judge can’t figure out your references. Any time you use “this,” “that” or “those,” make sure your reader understands the reference. The same goes for “her,” “his” and “their.” The reaction should not be “Whose?”

Be Careful with Pro-Forms

You know your case better than anyone else. That can lead to forgetting to fill in the listeners’ or readers’ knowledge gaps. Make sure every pronoun or pro-form reference is clear.

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Categories: Get to the Point, Grammar, Legal Writing
Originally published February 15, 2022
Last updated August 1, 2023
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Teddy Snyder Theda C. Snyder

Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates civil disputes, workers’ compensation and insurance coverage cases, including COVID-19 related coverage disputes, in person or by video. Teddy has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and is the author of four ABA books, including “Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips, 4th Edition” as well as “Personal Injury Case Evaluation” available on Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at and on Twitter @SnyderMediation.

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