Identifying and Fixing Ambiguous Pronouns on the ACT

Various pronouns to represent ambiguous pronouns on the ACT

When you’re studying for ACT English, pronoun questions can be particularly confusing. If your study materials are sub-par, they may simply tell you that a choice was wrong because the pronoun was ambiguous. But what does it mean to have an ambiguous pronoun in the ACT English section? And once you find one, how do you fix it? Here’s what you need to know to boost your English score!

What is a pronoun ambiguity?

First things first: let’s look at the definition of pronoun and its grammatical role. A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun or a noun phrase (a group of words serving as a noun). In ACT English terms, pronouns usually refer to people or things already mentioned. This isn’t always true (think of first-person pronouns: I, me), but any time you see a third-person pronoun—he, she, it, you should ask yourself: to whom is this referring?

The answer to that question will give you the antecedent. Take a look at the following sentence:

Tia went down to the market, where she bought an apple.

In this case, she is the pronoun—it’s replacing the specific noun, Tia, from earlier in the sentence. Meanwhile, Tia is the antecedent—the word the pronoun is replacing. The place of an antecedent is usually before the pronoun (ante- means before!).

With that in mind, what does ambiguity mean in this context? Ambiguous pronouns are pronouns with more than one possible antecedent. An ambiguous pronoun reference could look like this:

Lily told her sister that she would have to do the chores right away.

There are several types of vague pronoun problems. Here are each of them in more detail.

What are examples of ambiguous pronouns?

An ambiguous pronoun is a pronoun with multiple possible antecedents. But this is only one of four possible faulty pronoun references related to how specific (or vague!) a pronoun is. Take a look:

  1. An ambiguous pronoun has several possible antecedents.
  2. An implied/missing pronoun uses a possessive adjective (his, hers) instead of a true antecedent, which should be a noun.
  3. A vague pronoun is a pronoun with no actual antecedent. The sentence will imply a pronoun without actually giving one!

Here’s what each of these looks like in practice. Read the ambiguous sentences, then click below for the correct answer.

Ambiguous Pronouns

This is the primary type of pronoun ambiguity/pronoun error you’ll see on ACT English!
 
EXAMPLE: Lan and his father went to see his favorite movie.

Click here for the ambiguous pronoun resolution!

Lan and his father went to see Lan’s favorite movie.

 
Note that it’s also possible to have confused plural antecedents. Similarly, you can correct this type of pronoun error by changing either the pronoun or the antecedent. To find the best fix, look at the possible antecedents of each pronoun and choose the pairing that makes the most sense.

EXAMPLE: The girls and the boys went down to the lake, which was her favorite place.

Click here for possible corrections!

The girls and the boys went down to the lake, which was their favorite place.

Depending on the writer’s original meaning, you could also correct this to:
The girls and the boys went down to the lake, which was the favorite place of one of the girls.

Implied/Missing Pronouns

EXAMPLE: In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, she explores the limits of modernism.

Click here for a correct rewrite of this sentence!

In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf explores the limits of modernism.

Vague Pronouns

EXAMPLE: As nursing requires a high level of skill, they should receive correspondingly high salaries.

Click here for the ambiguous pronoun resolution!

As nursing requires a high level of skill, nurses should receive correspondingly high salaries.

 
In the above sentences, I’ve given a single possible solution to the ambiguous pronoun errors. But notice that the above information could support different interpretations! For example, Lan and his father went to see his favorite movie could turn into Lan and his father went to see his father’s favorite movie. But if the writer made a mistake by making the pronoun refer to a singular noun, this could also turn into Lan and his father went to see their favorite movie, using a plural pronoun instead.

Luckily, on test day, you won’t have to choose between multiple correct answers! There will be only one correct answer choice. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the resolution of ambiguous pronouns can happen in multiple ways, depending on the sentence’s main concept.

How do you identify unclear pronouns on the ACT English section?

If you’ve already started studying for the ACT, it won’t surprise you that the ACT tests pronouns in very specific ways. Because of this, it’s vital that you take a specific approach to identify and fix them on test day!

Remember that the ACT English section tests your knowledge of grammar rules by giving you passages with underlined words and phrases. You then need to identify whether the underlined section has an error and, if so, what the best correction for it is. Here’s how to ace those questions:

  1. Check if there is a pronoun or an antecedent in the underlined section.
  2. Read the sentence as a whole to identify the pronoun-antecedent pairing.
  3. Identify the intended pronoun-antecedent the author meant to reference—the preferred antecedent of an ambiguous pronoun.
  4. Scan the answer choices, using the following technique:
    1. If the underlined portion is an unclear pronoun, look for an answer choice with a proper noun as part of the phrase.
    2. Look at the differences between the answer choices.
      1. If you see that the answer choices switch between a pronoun and a noun, check to see if the pronoun answer choices have a clear antecedent. (In almost all cases, a noun answer choice will be more clear and will be correct.)
      2. If you see that the answer choices switch between different nouns, check for pronouns in the sentence and ensure that the antecedent is clear + creates the correct meaning. (This is harder and not very common!)

Practice with Ambiguous Pronouns

Ready to try your hand at fixing ambiguous pronouns in ACT English? Have a go!

Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the word “organic” into his philosophy of architecture as early as 1908. It was an extension of the teachings of his mentor Louis Sullivan.




Now, use the above method to find and fix the pronoun error.

When the underlined pronoun is unclear, the correct answer is usually the one that provides a proper noun as part of the phrase.

  1. Check if there is a pronoun or an antecedent in the underlined section.
    In this case, the underlined word is “it,” a pronoun.
     
  2. Read the sentence as a whole to identify the pronoun-antecedent pairing.
    Here, the pronoun is “it,” but there are two singular noun phrases that this could refer to—the word ‘organic’ and his philosophy of architecture.
     
  3. Identify the intended pronoun-antecedent the author meant to reference—the preferred antecedent of an ambiguous pronoun.
    By fully reading both sentences, it becomes clear that the pronoun refers to Wright’s approach to his work. However, don’t forget to complete Step 4 to check your work!
     
  4. Scan the answer choices, using the following technique:
    • If the underlined portion is an unclear pronoun, look for an answer choice with a proper noun as part of the phrase.
    • Look at the differences between the answer choices.

    In this case, the answer choices switch between different nouns, so this is the less-common type of pronoun error you’ll see on ACT English. Here, you should check for pronouns in the sentence, selecting the antecedent that creates eh correct meaning.

Think you have the correct answer? Make sure by checking out this video explanation!

Author

  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel is a Magoosh Content Creator. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. As a test-prep instructor for more than five years in there different countries, Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her novel, THE BALLERINAS, is forthcoming in December 2021 from St. Martin's Press, while her memoir, GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, co-written with Jessica Pan, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. Join her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

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