Professional Editor’s Corner: Ambiguous References

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Ambiguous References

What is an ambiguous reference, and how can we fix it?

Before we can tackle this VERY common writing problem, we need a little vocabulary.

You probably already know this, but just in case, I’ll offer a definition. A pronoun is a word that replaces or refers back to a noun (that we’ve already seen in the sentence or paragraph).

Take these sentences for example: Santana and Rachel have been fighting for their entire high school careers. They are very alike, which is why they often come into conflict.

In the first sentence, “their” is a pronoun referring back to “Santana and Rachel.” In the second sentence, “they” is a pronoun that replaces the compound noun “Santana and Rachel.”

Now for the most important vocabulary word. “Santana and Rachel” is the antecedent for “their” and “they.” So the antecedent is the original noun that we need pronouns to refer back to or replace.

An ambiguous reference is the situation in which a sentence contains a pronoun that could refer to either of two nouns in the same sentence or (using our new vocabulary word) where we have a pronoun but we aren’t sure what its antecedent is.

Let’s look at some examples.

1. The partnership between Mr. Stevens and Mr. Peterson ended when he embezzled money from the company and flew to Hong Kong.

In this sentence, because both Stevens and Peterson are men, we don’t know to which person the “he” refers. Who embezzled the money and traveled to Hong Kong?

To make this reference clear, we need to replace “he” with the name of the person.

The partnership between Mr. Stevens and Mr. Peterson ended when Mr. Stevens embezzled money from the company and flew to Hong Kong.

2. The mayor appointed Ms. Lopez chair of the committee because she was convinced of the need for an environmental study.

We don’t know whether the mayor is a man or a woman, so “she” could refer to the mayor or Ms. Lopez. To fix this, we need to either replace “she” with a name or rewrite the sentence so the reference is clear.

Suppose the mayor is “she.”

We could use a participial adjective and rewrite the sentence so that it’s right next to “mayor”: Convinced of the need for an environmental study, the mayor appointed Ms. Lopez chair of the committee.

As with all participial adjectives at the beginning of a sentence, this one refers to the subject (i.e., the mayor).

Suppose Ms. Lopez is “she.”

We need to connect being convinced with Ms. Lopez. Here’s one way.

Because Ms. Lopez was convinced of the need for an environmental study, the mayor appointed her chair of the committee.

Here we switch where the pronoun goes. Instead of putting the pronoun in the “convinced” part of the sentence, which could refer to either the mayor or Ms. Lopez, we put it in the “appointed” part, which logic dictates can only apply to Ms. Lopez. Then we KNOW that “her” must refer to Ms. Lopez because the mayor would not appoint herself chair of the committee (but if she did, we would use the reflexive pronoun “herself” instead of “her” because the mayor is also the subject of the main sentence).

We can rewrite sentences to make ambiguous references clear in MANY ways, but here are a couple of tips.

1. We can ALWAYS simply repeat the noun (that the pronoun was supposed to replace). In a pinch, do that.

2. Put the action as close to the noun the pronoun replaces as possible.

3. Apply logic. Even if a pronoun could grammatically speaking refer to one of two nouns, if only one makes sense, that’s clear enough.

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