The famous line quoted above kicks off Charles Dickens’s classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. But what exactly does “it” in each clause refer to? Readers of Dickens spend 300-some pages exploring the answer.
Readers of business writing aren't so patient. They expect immediate clarity, so you should always make sure your pronouns clearly refer to a specific person, place, thing, or idea.
What is an unclear pronoun reference?
An unclear pronoun reference occurs when the reader is unsure what word the pronoun refers to (its antecedent). To fix a pronoun-reference error, substitute the correct noun for the pronoun or reword the sentence.
Too many antecedents
Watch for sentences that include more than one possible antecedent.
Unclear: When the Army pharmacist prepared a flu shot for the officer, he winced. (Who winced—the pharmacist or the officer?)
Clear: When the Army pharmacist prepared a flu shot for the officer, the officer winced.
Clear: The officer winced when the Army pharmacist prepared a flu shot for him.
Avoid pronouns that don't refer back to any part of the sentence.
Unclear: The buyer called the mortgage office, but they didn't pick up. (Who is they?)
Clear: The buyer called the mortgage office, but no brokers picked up.
Clear: The buyer called the mortgage brokers, but they didn't pick up.
Who, which, or that clauses divorced from their antecedents
A relative pronoun connects a dependent clause to the main clause. Like other pronouns, who, which, and that must refer to a specific noun or noun phrase. To create clarity, always place the relative pronoun immediately following the word it refers to.
Unclear: Return your surveys by Monday, which will complete the review process. (Which is unclear—it doesn’t refer to a specific noun.)
Clear: By Monday, return your surveys, which will complete the review process.
It, this, that, or they used in reference to a whole sentence
These pronouns should refer to a specific noun, not an entire sentence.
Unclear: The building plan includes a co-working space, a rock-climbing wall, and a small coffee shop. This adheres to zoning code.
Clear: The building plan includes a co-working space, a rock-climbing wall, and a small coffee shop. The multiple-use plan adheres to zoning codes.