Grammar Blip: The Antecedent Proposal

Indecent ProposalIt’s 1993, and Demi Moore has just agreed to sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars to save her husband’s floundering business scheme. Is it a wise choice? What will the consequences be? Is Robert Redford as sexy in the sack as he is on the screen? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out, because this post is actually about the Antecedent Proposal rather than its Indecent counterpart.

For those students of grammar unfamiliar with the antecedent, here is a quick and dirty description. An antecedent is the word or phrase that comes before a stand-in word—most often a pronoun (he, she, it)—in order to clarify it.

Example the first:

Robert Redford thinks one night with a woman is worth a million bucks. He’s either a nutjob or a creeper.

Without the “Robert Redford” at the beginning of this example clarifying who we’re referring to, the “He’s” at the beginning of the second sentence could refer to anyone on the planet who stands up to pee (and a large number who sit as well). So in this example, “Robert Redford” is the antecedent (as well as a nutjob creeper).

Now, the Antecedent Proposal, dear grammar student, is a similar type of exchange to the Indecent one, minus the money. What our Antecedent is asking is simple. It wants to worm its creeper way into our prose, sometimes causing undo awkwardness and fumbling to develop in our otherwise smooth, solid sentences. But what it offers is as necessary as breathing to a writer—clarity. Without that clarity, our hes, shes, its, and even our thats and whos will float adrift with no capital, so to speak, on which to draw meaning.

Example the second:

Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson are both smokin’ hot. Too bad he bats for the other team.

Since both Robert Redford and Woody Harrelson are mentioned in the first sentence, the reader has no way of knowing which “he” the author is referring to in the second. Is it Rob or Woody who bats for the other team? Enquiring minds want to know.

The Antecedent Proposal would have you insert Rob or Woody in that “he” slot in the second sentence. It seems bulky to have to repeat the name, believe me I agree. The subject and the predicate were doing just fine in that second sentence without the antecedent budging in and causing the subject to get all insecure. But then, the million-dollar payoff for allowing the intrusion is clarity as sparkling as crystal.

Decisions, decisions. At least in this example, you may still have a choice. The reader may understand who is being referred to through context. Or maybe the repetition doesn’t seem so awkward in the two-sentence structure. But of course, it is not always that easy. So on to one final example.

Example the third:

Woody is waiting for Robert to pick up Demi in his Rolls-Royce Silver Spur Touring limousine.

Whose limousine are we referring to—Woody’s or Robert’s? If you’ve seen the movie, or decide to go with what seems most likely, then you’d guess Robert’s. And you’d be right. But if you didn’t know the movie, and the ridiculously expensive car didn’t give it away, you could easily be confused. Is Robert Woody’s driver? It’s possible.

The solution to this is, of course, replacing ‘his’ with ‘Robert’s.’ But the repetition of the name here is decidedly more awkward, since it occurs in the same sentence not five words away from the first mention of ‘Robert.’ One thing you can do to minimize the awkwardness is to rewrite the sentence.

Example the third, rewritten:

Robert picks up Demi in his Rolls-Royce Silver Spur Touring limousine while Woody looks on.

Whatever you decide to do with your antecedent, remember that clarity is everything. You can get away with a number of sins as long as your reader understands what’s going on.

So if you were faced with your own Antecedent Proposal, what would you do?

For more on antecedents:
Pronouns and Antecedents
Antecedent Agreement
Pronoun and Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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