What Is an Antecedent? An Explanation in Simple Terms

In English grammar, an antecedent is a subject that will be renamed by another word later in a sentence. Most often the word replacing the antecedent is a pronoun, though it can also be a noun or noun phrase. Understanding what is an antecedent and being able to properly use antecedents in writing is an important English grammar skill.

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What Is an Antecedent in Grammar?

The word antecedent refers to something that comes before, or precedes, something else. For example, especially in older or more formal English prose, people might refer to their ancestors or predecessors in a job as "my antecedents."

In grammar, the meaning of antecedent is more specific, as it refers to a word that comes before a different term that represents the original word. In the sentence, "When John went out in the rain, he got wet," John is the subject of the sentence, as well as the antecedent to the pronoun "he."

Example of Antecedent/Pronoun Usage

It's important to understand the relationship between pronouns and antecedents. Compare the two sentences below to get a sense of how substituting a pronoun for an antecedent can improve a sentence.

  • When John comes inside, John will dry off with John's towel in John's bathroom. (Here, the repetition of the noun John prevents the sentence from flowing properly.)
  • When John comes inside, he will dry off with his towel in his bathroom. (Here, repetition of the word John is eliminated by using pronouns. In this sentence, John is an antecedent that is later replaced by "he" and "his.")

Antecedents for Nouns or Noun Phrases

Pronouns aren't the only option for replacing antecedents with other terms. Different nouns or noun phrases can also be used.

  • When John comes inside, the boy will dry off with his towel in his bathroom. (Here, the antecedent John is replaced with "the boy," in addition to being replaced with "his" later on.)
  • When John comes inside, the wet boy will dry off with his towel in his bathroom. (Here, the more vivid noun phrase "the wet boy" is used to replace John once within in the sentence, along with "his" later in the sentence.)

Understanding Antecedent Agreement

An antecedent and the word that replaces it must agree in number. If the antecedent is singular, then the pronoun that takes its place must also be singular.

  • singular - John went out in the rain, so he got wet. (John is a singular noun, so it must be replaced by a singular word, such as "he.")
  • plural - The kids went out in the rain, so they got wet. (Here, "the kids" is plural, so the replacement word must also be plural, such as "they.")
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Compound Subjects as Antecedents

Some antecedents are compound subjects, which means they feature two nouns joined by a conjunction like "and" or "or." The conjunction determines whether compound subjects functioning as antecedents need to be replaced by a plural or singular word. Consider the examples below:

  • Jack and Jane were here at 6 p.m. last night, so they ate dinner with my family. (When the antecedents are joined with "and," as with "Jack and Jane," the pronoun needs to be plural since it encompasses both people.)
  • Either Julie or Jane will loan me her notes from yesterday's class. (In this example, the word "or" is used to connect two singular nouns. One or the other person will loan notes, not both. So, a singular pronoun should be used.)
  • Either Julie or another classmate will loan me their notes from yesterday's class. (Here, even though "or" is used, the pronoun "their" is replacing "Julie or another classmate." Unless the students are all female, this antecedent needs a gender neutral pronoun. The word "their" can be singular or plural, as can "they" and "them.")
  • Either Julie or the weather forecasters messed up their prediction. (Here, the antecedent includes a singular noun and a plural noun. In this case, the replacement term (their) must agree in number with the part of the antecedent to which it's closest in the sentence.

Indefinite Pronouns as Antecedents

Indefinite pronouns are commonly used as antecedents in sentences. When replacing these words, it's important to be clear on which indefinite pronouns are considered singular and which are considered plural. This will help ensure proper pronoun agreement.

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Singular Indefinite Pronouns

When a singular indefinite pronoun is used as an antecedent, the word that replaces it must also be singular. For example, "everything" is singular, so it would be correct to say "Everything here has its own box." The examples of indefinite pronouns listed below are singular.

  • anybody
  • anyone
  • anything
  • each
  • either
  • everybody
  • everyone
  • everything
  • neither
  • nobody
  • no one
  • nothing
  • one
  • somebody
  • someone
  • something

Plural Indefinite Pronouns

By contrast, plural indefinite pronoun antecedents require a plural pronoun. As an example, "several" is plural. As a result, it would be correct to say "Several are there because of their looks." The plural indefinite pronouns are listed below.

  • both
  • few
  • many
  • several

Indefinite Pronouns and Prepositional Phrases

For some indefinite pronouns, determining whether they are singular or plural depends on whether they are modified by a singular or plural prepositional phrase. Consider a few sentences that feature the indefinite pronoun "most" as an antecedent.

  • Most of the flour fell out of its canister. (Here "of the flour" is a prepositional phrase. Flour is an uncountable noun, so it would be replaced by a singular pronoun.)
  • Many of the gems have lost their shine. (Here, "of the gems" is a prepositional phrase. Gems is plural, so the antecedent must be replaced by a plural pronoun.)

Other pronouns that must be considered this way include all, any, none, and some.

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From Antecedents to Predicate Nouns

Now that you know the answer to the question of "What is an antecedent?" you're ready to move on to even more advanced grammar topics. From here, take the time to learn about predicate nouns, which are nouns or phrases that connect to antecedents by linking verbs. Once you have a basic understanding of that concept, deepen your knowledge by reviewing examples of predicate nouns in sentences.