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Vague Pronouns On the SAT Writing & ACT English Section

The SAT Writing / ACT English section often features pinpoint questions on phrases that are technically correct, but vague. Unclear writing is considered suboptimal, and this is the premise upon which many pronoun-based questions are built.


The two main issues with pronoun use

As a general rule, there are two main ways in which the SAT / ACT can misuse pronouns:

  1. The wrong pronoun is being used.

  2. The noun which the pronoun references is unclear.


Let's look at an example of case (1).


'A set of porcelain dolls were on display in the window; they seemed expensive.'


The pronoun in this case should refer to the word 'set'. 'Of dolls' only serves as a descriptor of 'a set'. As such, the correct pronoun would be 'it', rather than 'they.'


These kinds of questions usually follow noun-of-noun phrases. For a more detailed explanation of this question type, please see here.


Today's article will focus on case (2): the subject which the pronoun references is unclear.


The use of unclear pronouns

Let's look at the following sentence:


'John gave a nod to Jim; he bought the grand piano.'


Who bought the piano? John? Or Jim?


In order for this sentence to be correct on the SAT / ACT, the pronoun has to be amended such that it's clear to whom the underlined segment refers. There are two main ways of doing so.


Typical methods of replacement for unclear pronouns

The two main methods for replacing an unclear pronoun are as follows:

Method 1: Replace the pronoun with a noun.


Method 2: Replace the pronoun, and the punctuation mark before it, with a comma and a relative pronouns (who, which, that).


Let's look at examples of the two methods.


Method 1: replacing the pronoun with a noun

Using method (1), we'll re-use one of the nouns already mentioned, depending on who 'bought the grand piano':


'John gave a nod to Jim; John bought the grand piano.'

OR

'John gave a nod to Jim; Jim bought the grand piano.'


Please note that generally in the course of the SAT / ACT, you don't have to worry about who actually bought the piano by searching for context clues. It's enough that this isolated sentence is now clear. And you almost certainly won't be given both nouns as two different answer options; either 'John' will be an option, or 'Jim' will.



Method 2: replacing the punctuation and pronoun with a comma and relative pronoun

Here's the sentence after using Method 2:


'John gave a nod to Jim, who bought the grand piano.'


Of course, this only works if Jim is the one buying the piano. Comma + relative pronouns are used exclusively to refer to the last noun mentioned, and they must follow immediately after that noun.

Both these methods are fairly common on the SAT / ACT.


Now let's look at some general examples.


Examples

Example #1

The petals on the train tracks were almost undetectable ; they covered only a small part of the ground.


Question #1

A) NO CHANGE

B) , which

C) ; these insects

D) ; it



Note that the answer options have been chosen with the deliberate goal of tricking you. Option D), 'it', is often used as a replacement for 'they' if the issue with the pronoun is that it's the wrong one. (Case 1)


Option B) utilizes a comma and a relative pronoun (which), but note that its use here would be incorrect. A comma + a relative pronoun must follow immediately behind the noun being referenced. Here, there's a break of several words ('were almost undetectable') between the comma and the last noun mentioned ('tracks').


Option C), on the other hand, uses Method #2 to replace the pronoun with a repeat noun. Note that it makes no difference that option C adds the word 'these'; just make sure you read the sentence with the new wording plugged in, to make sure it sounds okay.


Example #2

'I put the book on the table ; it was older than I had expected.'


Question #2

A) NO CHANGE

B) , it was

C) , they were

D) , which was


Of course, the issue is the 'it', not the semicolon. Does the pronoun refer to the book or to the table?


Option B) clearly doesn't address the ambiguity problem. Option C) does, but not only does it blatantly change the meaning of the sentence, it's grammatically incorrect. This is worse than ambiguity. (Two independent clauses which are separated by a comma MUST have a linking word between them. See here for a more detailed explanation.)


The correct option is the one which utilizes Method #2, replacing the punctuation and pronoun with a comma and a relative pronoun. The answer is D).



Example #3

'My friend gave the waiter an order. There were several dishes that he considered especially delicious.'


Question #3

A) NO CHANGE

B) that he believed would be

C) that my friend thought were

D) being


This is a pronoun question. The other words are underlined to divert focus from the real problem: the 'he' in the underlined segment is unclear. Is it a reference to the friend, or to the waiter?


Option B) doesn't amend the issue, and D) is grammatical nonsense. The answer is option C.

Conclusion

When you see pinpoint questions which clearly focus on a pronoun, check which of the two cases apply. If the pronoun follows a noun-of-noun phrase ("group of girls", "cartons of milk", etc.), that is likely the issue with the phrase. Otherwise, check to make sure the pronoun reference is clear. For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.


Happy learning,

Tova