Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
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Keep Your Enemies Close And Your Antecedents Closer

"Korva said she would tell her driver, Pat, to start warming the car at 3:07 a.m. each day instead of 3:05 just as soon as she returns from the organic smoothie shop."

Who's at the organic smoothie shop? Pat or Korva? Who's the "she?" When will she get back with that smoothie?

We offer this presumably fictional and rather convoluted sentence because many of us aren't careful about making sure that the pronouns we use are clearly connected to the antecedents they replace. Editors see antecedent/pronoun problems in copy every day.

Let's pick apart the opening scene. This is what was happening:

– Korva wanted the car started at 3:07 a.m., not 3:05.

– Pat was at the organic smoothie shop getting Korva's Mango/Kale/Chia Supreme.

– Korva would have to wait until Pat returned to tell her about the new starting time.

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style offers this advice: "The relative pronoun should come, in most instances, immediately after its antecedent." Note, for instance, how much clearer it reads to say Korva would have to "wait until Pat returned to tell her." Just four small words separate the antecedent from the pronoun. It's clear that Pat is "her."

Please also take care to pair singular pronouns with singular antecedents and plurals with plurals. Gender agreement is important as well, but bear in mind that the choice of pronoun may be a sensitive issue when the subject is a transgender person.