SAT Tip of the Week: 3 Types of Antecedent Errors

SAT Tip of the Week - FullThe word “antecedent” in grammar refers to a noun that a pronoun takes the place of, and since we see a lot of pronouns on the SAT Writing questions, we see a lot of antecedents. There are three main ways antecedents can make an Improving Sentences or Identifying Sentence Error statement wrong: by not agreeing in number with its pronoun, by offering more than one possible antecedent, or by not being present in the sentence at all! Let’s brush up on our antecedent knowledge, then we’ll examine these errors:

EX: James Joyce is one of the most famous Irish authors because of his early 20th century novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Here the pronoun is “his” – what does it refer to? The author “James Joyce.” We would say that “James Joyce” is the antecedent.

Error #1 – Not Agreeing in Number!

James Joyce is one person, and so we use the singular subject pronoun “his” to replace the subject. On the SAT, you might see something like this:

Elephants are the largest land animals on Earth; these mammals live primarily on the African continent where it primarily eats grasses, bamboo, bark, and leaves for survival.

You may have spotted the pronoun “it” in the second independent clause. “It” refers back to the antecedent “elephants,” which is plural (it ends in an “s”). This sentence could be corrected in two ways: either making the antecedent singular to match “it,” or changing the pronoun “it” to the plural “their” – sometimes the SAT will correct pronoun/antecedent errors in a way you might not expect!

Error #2 – Too Many Antecedents!

A pronoun is unclear if it can refer back to more than one possible antecedent.

EX: When Mathilda lost Mary Ann’s manuscript, she was upset.

Who was upset? It could be Mathilda, but couldn’t it also be Mary Ann?

EX: I was carrying the groceries in my left hand and the keys in my right hand when I tripped and dropped them.

What is “them”? It could be either the groceries, the keys, or both! The SAT likes to keep things clear and simple. If you see a sentence that has more than one antecedent-option, look for a version that makes it clear.

Error #3 – No Antecedent!

Sometimes a sentence will contain pronouns that don’t refer back to anything at all.

EX: When Mark went in for his physical exam, they needed to take a blood sample.

Who are “they”? The people giving the exam? A better version:

When Mark went in for his physical exam, the doctors needed to take a blood sample.

The second-version is much more clear. Try to circle vague pronouns as you take SAT practice tests. It might help you to draw an arrow from the pronoun to the antecedent for EVERY pronoun you see – while this may feel tedious at first, pretty soon it will become second-nature!

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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing advice to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.