Ambiguous Antecedent

Being a technical writer and editor, I’m somewhat fond of style guides. The other day I found a good deal on the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2013, so I bought it and took it home. Flipping through the book later, I read this in the Foreword:

“The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. It marks its 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages and is published across an array of digital platforms, encompassing the collective wisdom of its readers….”

There’s a subtle yet serious problem with the first pronoun and its antecedent. Before I explain it, here’s a refresher from 7th-grade English class.

Pronouns take the place of nouns. For example, in the sentence “She is so tall,” the pronoun “she” replaces the name of the person the speaker refers to. Pronouns save us work and make our speech more elegant. Without them, we’d have to repeat the name of the noun itself in every sentence we spoke about it.

Consider this sentence. “Karen just got here. You know, she is so tall. I wonder where she shops for dresses?” Without pronouns, we’d have to say “Karen just got here. You know, Karen is so tall. I wonder where Karen shops for dresses?” That’s ugly.

Sometimes a noun appears before its pronoun. In that case, the noun is called the pronoun’s antecedent. In the example in the previous paragraph, “Karen” is the antecedent of the pronoun “she.” And in the paragraph I cited from the AP Stylebook, “the first Associated Press Stylebook” is the antecedent of the pronoun “it.” So what’s the problem?

If you substitute the antecedent for “it,” you’ll see where the paragraph falls apart.

“The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. The first Associated Press Stylebook marks its 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages…”

Even though the author probably meant to say that the current version of the stylebook marks the 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual, what he said was that the first version marks the 60th year.

Here’s a clear rewrite.

“The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. The version you’re reading now marks the Stylebook’s 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages…”

I replaced the pronoun with the noun phrase “the version you’re reading now.” But I also changed the verb phrase “marks its 60th year” to “marks the Stylebook’s 60th year.” Why did I have to do that? The topic of the paragraph is the Stylebook, but the sentences talk about three instances of it: The first version (60 pages and bound with staples), the current version, and the stylebook as a living document. To be completely clear, I had to insert “the Stylebook” before “60th year” to reference its enduring state.

Am I being nit-picky? Maybe. After all, readers might figure out what the author meant. But they also might pause over the discrepancy—just because something “sounds wrong.” And if prose makes a reader pause, that prose is not plain language.

 

 

 

 

 

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