With reference, we're talking about pronouns again. If you recall, a pronoun is a word that renames (takes the place of) another word (the antecedent). It not only must agree with its antecedent (see agreement: pronoun-antecedent), but it must also clearly refer to the word it renames.
If the pronoun doesn't clearly refer to its antecedent, you may cause confusion for your readers. And as we've said before, if you confuse your readers (and it's not that hard to do!), your communication breaks down.
Whenever you find a pronoun in your writing, underline it and then draw an arrow back to the specific one word that it renames. If you can't find the word or there seem to be two or more words that it could refer to, you have a problem with reference. Remember: the antecedent must be in the preceding clause or phrase (the one right before the pronoun) if you want to make sure the reference is clear.
Now, let's take a look at a few examples:
Try drawing an arrow from any of these italicized pronouns to the word they rename. Can't do it? That's because each is an example of a reference problem. Sometimes the problem is easy to fix; sometimes you've got to start all over again, as you can see in the following:
Look back at number 1. The problem is with they: who are they? To fix it, rephrase with something like
". . . because the owners are so friendly" or ". . . because the people who work there are so friendly."
With these changes, there is no problem with clarity.
In number 2, we don't know who was looking fit. Was it Doc or the owner? Fixing sentences like this one can be awkward, but here's one suggestion. "The owner told Doc, 'You look fit.'" Or, if you meant something else you could say, "The owner told Doc, 'I look fit.'"
With number 3, you have a different problem: it has no specific antecedent. The writer is trying to refer to the vague, unstated idea of "cat breeding," but you can't clearly refer to something that doesn't exist. One fix is: "His brother is a cat breeder, but I'm not interested in breeding cats."
In number 4, the pronoun could be referring to either the tape or the VCR. Since it can't refer to both, the meaning is unclear. One solution is: "He tried to put the tape of 1001 Dalmatians in the VCR, but the machine was broken." Obviously, you could put "tape" in place of "machine" if that was what you meant.
Reference problems can create confusion in your writing, but if you know what they are and use the "underline and arrow" trick to check for them, they shouldn't cause you any trouble.
How about a "Self-Test" to see if you really understand.
© Scott Foll 2001. All rights reserved.