Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
Ambiguous and Vague Pronouns
Starting to hate pronouns? Don’t worry, this concept is much more intuitive than the last one.
Ambiguous pronouns lack a clear antecedent, while vague pronouns lack an antecedent altogether. Remember that antecedent refers to the noun or pronoun that a pronoun refers to (ante meaning “before” in Latin).
In the following sentence, the pronoun is bolded:

Fred visited Bob after his graduation.

Let’s play “Find the Antecedent.” Whose graduation are we talking about? Fred’s or Bob’s? They’re both men, so it’s impossible to tell. This kind of mistake can slide right by a careful test-taker, so be on the lookout. Replace his with either Fred’s or Bob’s, and you’ve solved the problem:

Fred visited Bob after Fred’s graduation.

Or:

Fred visited Bob after Bob’s graduation.

Do not assume that logic trumps grammar on the SAT. Look at the following sentence:

Zelda gave her daughter a bike that she rode constantly from that moment on.

This seems less ambiguous because we tend to interpret the sentence according to our experience and expectations: mother gives daughter a bicycle; daughter is totally psyched; daughter thus rides bike nonstop. She refers to her daughter; choose E, No error, and keep going.
That’s all well and good, except that you just chose a distractor! It is possible that Zelda gave her daughter a bike and that Zelda, not her daughter, rode that bike constantly from that moment on. Maybe Zelda’s a mean mom. Maybe the daughter hated the bicycle and Zelda rekindled her childhood love of cycling. The point is, we’ve got an ambiguous pronoun, and that’s an error.

NOTE: Many people are taught that since her daughter is closest to she, her daughter is she’s antecedent. Word order helps determine antecedent. But the SAT has its own take on this, and that’s all that matters for our purposes.


Now, what’s wrong with the following sentence?

They say that the SAT considers vague pronouns to be a grammatical mistake.

On its own, the they in this sentence has no antecedent at all. There are many ways to rewrite this sentence, but here’s one option:

The author of this book says that the SAT considers vague pronouns to be a grammatical mistake.

Now you have a clear statement. Note, however, that if the original sentence had been embedded in a paragraph, it would be clear who They refers to:

I’ve talked to three English teachers. They say that the SAT considers vague pronouns to be a grammatical mistake. I’m glad I asked them about it.

Context is everything. In this context, They has a clear antecedent: three English teachers.
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