Antecedents: What are Antecedents? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 18, 2023

Do you want to learn about antecedents? You've come to the right place. This article will teach you everything you need to know about antecedents, what they are, and how to use them in your writing.

In short:

  • An antecedent is the subject of a sentence and is named as such when it is replaced by a pronoun later in the sentence.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Antecedents?

Antecedents and pronouns go hand in hand. Pronouns replace antecedents, and antecedents are replaced by pronouns. That's the most straightforward way to explain it.

In other words, the antecedent is the subject of the sentence, the word that will later be replaced by a pronoun to avoid repetition. It's a person, animal, thing, idea, concept, place... anything a noun can be, an antecedent can be.

Let's look at an example:

The cat licked itself clean.

In this sentence, the noun 'cat'—the subject—is the antecedent, and the reflexive pronoun 'itself' replaces it later in the sentence to avoid repeating the word 'cat.'

The antecedent and the pronoun are also sometimes in separate clauses or even sentences.

Here are some examples:

I don't know what is wrong with my plants; they just keep dying.

Paul approached the teacher slowly and took a seat. He hadn't been so nervous in a long time.

This project is a waste of my time; it's never going to work.

The word antecedent has the prefix 'ante,' which means 'before.' Logically, then, the antecedent should come before the pronoun that replaces it. And most of the time, that is the case. It was the case in our earlier example where the antecedent 'cat' came before the pronoun 'itself.' You'll see the antecedent underlined and the pronoun in bold.

Here are some more examples where this is true.

Julie's confidence grew the more she practiced.

My parents are selling their house.

On the racetracks is the place I feel most alive.

Notice in that last example that a noun ('place') replaces the antecedent and not a pronoun. Nouns and noun phrases are also able to replace antecedents.

But there are also cases where the antecedent will come after the pronoun, but it's simply because of the writer's stylistic choices. For example, they might decide to use an introductory clause at the beginning of the sentence.

Case in point:

Shaken by what he had just seen, the man gave his testimony to the police.

Notice how the sentence above has two pronouns. You'll also find sentences that have two antecedents.

For example:

My mom and my auntie are at the market.

It's OK to have sentences with two antecedents; you just need to make sure the pronoun is adjusted accordingly. And this brings us to the next point.

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

Ensuring pronoun-antecedent agreement involves making sure we're choosing the correct pronoun to fit the noun it's replacing. You wouldn't use the pronoun 'she' to talk about Mark and Jon, for example, would you? And why not? Because the gender is incorrect, and it's singular when it should be plural.

So when picking a pronoun, you must ask:

  • Should it be masculine or feminine?
  • Is it singular or plural?
  • Is it a living being or an object?

For example, the pronoun 'him' in the following sentence is incorrect since it's singular, whereas 'kids' is plural. Moreover, 'him' is a gendered pronoun (masculine), whereas 'kids' is gender-neutral unless otherwise specified.

The kids finish kindergarten soon; I need to pick him up.

Instead, you should say:

The kids finish kindergarten soon; I need to pick them up. 

In our earlier example, we talked about Mark and Jon; that's a compound subject. That's just a fancy word to say that there's more than one of them. So you'll need to use the plural pronoun 'they.'

Case in point:

Mark and John said they would be here in a few minutes. 

Now we'll go over some exceptional cases to be aware of.

'They:' Singular or Plural?

If you're confused by the pronoun 'they,' you're not alone. This one trips many people up because it can be both singular and plural.

  • Traditionally, it's a plural pronoun used to talk about two or more people, of which one of them isn't 'you' or 'me.'

For example:

I don't like kids; they're too loud.

Her in-laws only visit about once a year because they live in Spain.

Have you seen my earrings? They've gone missing.

But there are two situations where the pronoun 'they' can also be singular: when referring to one person whose gender is unknown and when referring to one person who is non-binary (they identify as neither male nor female).

Case in point:

It looks like somebody forget their sunglasses.

Callie said they couldn't make it tonight. 

I don't know who did this but whoever they are, they'd better come forward.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns name a group of people, animals, or things. Because more than one thing is included within these groups, it can lead us to believe the noun should be plural.

  • A singular noun refers to just one thing
  • A plural noun refers to multiple things
  • But a collective noun is one thing that refers to multiple things... so you can see the dilemma!

For example, would you say the noun 'herd' was singular or plural? Take a look at the following sentence.

The herd of cows approached rapidly.

The answer is that it's singular. Yes, there are many cows, but 'cows' isn't the subject; it's 'herd,' which is a singular noun. No matter how many cows are in that herd, 'herd' will always be singular.

So don't sweat it!

It's worth noting, however, that sometimes a collective noun can be considered plural if the sentence wants to highlight the actions of the individuals in the group.

For example:

The choir sounds wonderful.

The choir are having lunch afterwards.

But since a collective noun can always be regarded as singular but only occasionally be considered plural, I like to think of them all as singular, to keep it simple. With that in mind, here are some examples of sentences that show correct antecedent-pronoun agreement:

The hedge of bushes outside the house needs trimmiing; it is getting overgrown.

My packet of cigarettes has disappeared! Have you seen it?

I think the Smith family have gone on holiday because their car isn't there.

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns can also be a little misleading as they often sound like they should be plural since they refer to more than one person or thing. However, just like collective nouns, they are mostly singular.

Some plural indefinite pronouns are:

Many more are singular:

  • anybody
  • another
  • anyone
  • anything
  • each
  • either
  • everything
  • everybody
  • everyone
  • neither
  • no one
  • nobody
  • somebody
  • someone
  • something
  • one
  • other

Here are some examples of sentences with an antecedent and an indefinite pronoun:

The students seem interested in the school trip; several of them have already signed up.

The bride's family doesn't want to be late for the wedding. Everyone is rushing to get there on time.

The boys in my class are tall. In fact all are taller than me.

Avoiding Ambiguity With Antecedents

When you use antecedents and pronouns in your writing, you'll want to try your best to place them correctly to avoid ambiguity and make it very clear who or what you're talking about.

Take a look at the following sentence as an example:

My glass is empty because Connor drank it.

What did Connor drink? He surely didn't drink the glass, but this sentence seems to suggest as much. That's because the pronoun 'it' replaces a missing antecedent.

This sentence would be better phrased as such:

I don't have any wine because Connor drank it.

Here the pronoun 'it' correctly replaces the antecedent 'wine.'

Let's look at another example:

Lee told his dad he was invited to his friend's birthday party. 

Who's invited to the party? Lee or his dad? And who's friend is having a party, Lee's friend or his dad's friend? This sentence is ambiguous because it's unclear which antecedent the pronouns 'he' and 'his' refer to.

Here is a better way to phrase this:

Lee had been invited to his friend's birthday party so he told his dad.

Concluding Thoughts on Antecedents

That concludes this article on antecedents. I hope you found it helpful and that you now feel well-equipped to use them accurately in your writing. Let's summarize what we've learned.

  • Antecedents are nouns that can be replaced by pronouns.
  • They usually come before the pronoun that replaces them, but they can occasionally come after.
  • A sentence can have more than one antecedent.
  • Ensure antecedent-pronoun agreement when writing your sentences so as to avoid ambiguity. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our Grammar Book. It's a free online database of grammar articles just like this one. Check it out!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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