Pronoun Ambiguity on the GMAT: Finding the Antecedent


Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - Pronoun Ambiguity on the GMAT: Finding the Antecedent by Chelsey Cooley

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The last time I wrote about pronoun ambiguity on the GMAT, we explored a couple of big ideas. Here’s a quick summary, before we dive deeper into the topic:

1. An ambiguous pronoun is a pronoun—like they or it—that could technically refer to more than one different thing.

2. According to the GMAT, ambiguous pronouns aren’t always wrong. If you see the sentence above in isolation, don’t cross it off.

3. However, if a Sentence Correction problem also has a pronoun split—if you get to choose whether to use a pronoun, or whether to “spell it out” and use a noun—you should go with the sentence that uses a noun.

That seems like a lot of rules just to explain how to use tiny little words like it and they! If you want to make your life simpler, you have my permission to forget about pronoun ambiguity on the GMAT. Focus on the other rules, like the rule that says a pronoun has to agree in number (singular or plural) with its antecedent. You’ll still get almost all pronoun problems correct, even if you don’t worry about ambiguity at all.

However, if you’re looking to take your Sentence Correction performance from good to great—or if you’re curious about grammar—keep reading.

On the GMAT, every pronoun “refers to” a noun in the same sentence. If you replaced the pronoun with this noun, also known as the antecedent, the sentence would still make logical sense. For instance, in this sentence,

Mariah wrote a book, but I didn’t read it.

“it” is a pronoun, and “a book” is the antecedent of that pronoun.

Mariah wrote a book, but I didn’t read the book.

After replacing the pronoun with its antecedent, the sentence still makes logical sense, even though it sounds a little awkward. Since it still makes sense, we know with confidence that “book” is the antecedent of “it.” You can use this test on tricky Sentence Correction pronoun problems.

Contrary to popular belief, the antecedent can be anywhere in the sentence. It can even appear after the pronoun itself! Here’s an example:

Because it was still frozen solid, I didn’t eat the ice cream immediately.

In this one, “it” is our pronoun, and “ice cream” is the antecedent. That’s totally fine. The antecedent and the pronoun also appear in different clauses. That’s fine, too. Don’t ever eliminate an answer choice because a pronoun seems to be too far away from its antecedent.

In some Sentence Correction problems, you’ll have to decide which pronoun should be used in a sentence: “it”, or “they”? In order to do that, you first need to determine what the antecedent of the pronoun is supposed to be. In some sentences, the decision is pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, the GMAT can make antecedents hard to spot. What’s the right antecedent for the pronoun in this sentence?

The climate of the tropical forests of Northern Peru, famous for rainfall that measures in the hundreds of inches each year, causes (them/it) to have far lusher vegetation than the temperate forests of the United States.

Does the pronoun stand for climate? Forests? Peru? Rainfall? Inches? Some of these can be eliminated immediately, using the test we applied earlier. Try plugging in “rainfall,” “inches,” or even “climate” in place of the pronoun—the resulting sentences don’t make logical sense, so none of these nouns can be the antecedent we’re looking for. However, both “forests” and “Peru” seem like reasonable options. Which is correct?

The right answer is forests, which is plural, so the right pronoun is they. Look closely at the end of the sentence. This part of the sentence compares two things, explaining that one of them has lusher vegetation than the other. One of the two things being compared is the temperate forests of the United States. What should we compare these forests to? To the forests of Peru, not to Peru by itself. This rule is called parallelism, and it’s one of the most commonly tested ideas in Sentence Correction. (Check out the Sentence Correction Strategy Guide for much more information!)

Here’s a second example:

In certain contexts, corporations are considered the legal equivalents of people, making it a complicated task to clearly distinguish between a corporation and the many people who work for and in association with (it/them).

Here, the antecedent is a corporation. Since the antecedent is singular, the correct pronoun is it. How do you know that the antecedent isn’t the plural noun corporations? Parallelism can help. Towards the end of the sentence, two things are compared to each other: a corporation, and the many people who work for … it. In order to be logically correct, the sentence should compare a single corporation to the people who work for that same corporation—not to people who work for other corporations, or for corporations in general. Since the pronoun should refer to the specific corporation that was just mentioned, it is the right choice.

It’s sometimes tough to tell what the antecedent of a pronoun is supposed to be. However, the sentence always has to give you enough information to figure it out. Often, that information includes parallelism. Look for comparisons or lists in the sentence, and remember that the different things in a list have to “look alike.” Often, this will be enough to help you choose the right antecedent. 📝

Want more guidance from our GMAT gurus? You can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GMAT courses absolutely free! We’re not kidding. Check out our upcoming courses here.

Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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