TOEFL Grammar

When we speak or write in the English language, we often use pronouns like “he,” “they,” or “it.” On their own, these words mean very little, but usually they are accompanied by an antecedent, which gives the pronoun its meaning.

If someone says, “It is amazing!” then you wouldn’t really know what “it” was out of context. However, it is likely that in spoken or written English, the person would make reference to “it” in a more specific way first, and then refer later to it. For example:

  • I got a new computer last week. It is amazing

Here, we can clearly see that “it” refers to “new computer.” In this case, our antecedent is “new computer.”

In this article, you will learn about antecedents and pronouns so that you can improve your English skills for all parts of TOEFL.

The Importance of Antecedents

An antecedent is basically a word, phrase, or even a clause that is later replaced by a third-person pronoun. In one sense, it is not the antecedent that is grammatically important; it is the pronoun. However, the relationship between the two parts of the sentence is very important.

Using a pronoun to replace an antecedent allows us to avoid repetition, which is something that native English speakers hate. We cannot bear the sound of repeated words and phrases, and so we have found many creative ways to avoid this in our language. When native speakers use English, we naturally incorporate many antecedent-pronoun combinations to make our language sounds better without obscuring the meaning at all. However, this can be troublesome for English learners. They may find it hard to understand what we are talking about, and when they attempt to make a sentence of their own, they may make some mistakes. (We will explore those mistakes later in this article.)

As you can see, then, being able to understand and produce antecedent-pronoun partners is very important if you want to speak English fluently or understand what other people say. All of this will give you a much better chance of scoring highly for TOEFL.

Examples of Antecedents

Let’s look at a few examples of antecedents in order to understand them fully. I will show you a few different kinds to give you a better understanding of this grammatical point:

  1. John forgot his
    • Antecedent = John; pronoun = his
  2. Cycling to work each morning can help you save money on travel fares. More importantly, however, it can improve your health.
    • Antecedent = cycling to work each morning; pronoun = it
  3. I really liked that the movie had a diverse cast. It is hopefully a positive new trend in Hollywood.
    • Antecedent = that the movie had a diverse cast; pronoun = it

In example #1, we have a single word as antecedent. This is probably the easiest type of sentence to make because it is relatively simple to choose the antecedent and then pick an appropriate pronoun to match it. As long as you know the person’s gender, then it shouldn’t be too hard. If you don’t know, then you can say “he or she” or “his or her” instead. Sometimes you can say “they” or “their” for single person pronouns when you don’t know the gender.

Example #2 is a little more complex as we have a whole phrase as an antecedent. In this case, it is a noun phrase acting as the subject of a clause. Although this may seem a little confusing, you have to imagine it as one idea, just like the previous example. A noun phrase will act just like a noun, except it will have more words.

Finally, we can even have a whole clause as an antecedent just like in example #3. Here, the relative clause is the object of “like” and represents a bigger idea than the previous two examples. Nonetheless, it can still be referred to by a little pronoun such as “it.”

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Some Slightly More Complicated Antecedents

There are some cases when the antecedent is a little more complex than the ones we have looked at before. That includes when we use indefinite pronouns, such as “someone,” “nothing,” or “anybody.” Yes, that’s right – we can use a pronoun as the antecedent and then refer to it with another pronoun. How complicated!

Take a look at this sentence:

  • Someone broke into my house last night. They stole my iPad and camera.

Here, we have the indefinite pronoun “someone” as the antecedent and then we use “they” as the pronoun that refers back to it. In this case, we have chosen “they” because we do not know whether it was a man or woman who broke into the house.

Mistakes with Antecedents

When you are dealing with simple antecedents, it is usually quite easy to match the antecedent to its pronoun. However, there are some problems that can emerge and you should get to know them before you book your next TOEFL test date.

The biggest mistake that English learners make here is getting the number wrong. In other words, if there is a single thing then people might use a plural pronoun, or if there are multiple things then they might use a singular pronoun. It is surprisingly common, so don’t feel bad if you make this mistake. But you need to learn how to identify it so that you can remove it from your writing or speaking before the test.

Let’s look at an example:

  • The players celebrated winning the World Cup. His hard work had finally paid off.

Now what is the problem here?

The antecedent is the plural noun “players” but the pronoun used is “his,” which is a singular form. Of course, we should instead say:

  • The players celebrated winning the World Cup. Their hard work had finally paid off.

This may seem easy or obvious to you, but actually when you are writing under pressure it is common for people to choose the wrong pronoun for their antecedent. This is why it is important to practice editing your own writing so that you can later find these errors and remove them.

In some situations, it is possible to use two different methods of referring back to an antecedent and both plural and singular forms are acceptable. This occurs when we are talking about groups such as “company,” “team,” “family,” “government,” and so on. When this sort of situation occurs, we can use the singular form to refer to the team as an entity or the plural form to refer to them as a group of individuals.

Let’s take a look at some final examples:

  1. The team won its first trophy in six years.
  2. The team won their first trophy in six years.

Both of these are perfectly acceptable, but they do have slightly different meanings. In #1, we are talking about the team as a complete unit whereas in #2 we are referring more to a group of individual players as part of a team. Usually, we choose the idea which best represents our view of the situation, but sometimes it is totally interchangeable.


If you want to improve your English in order to score highly in your next TOEFL test, you should definitely spend some time polishing your antecedent skills. This is an incredibly common part of the English language and being able to use it effectively will help you to get better at all sections of the exam.

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