vague reference : Common Errors in English

About vague reference

Vague reference is a common problem in sentences where “this,” “it,”“which” or other such words don’t refer back to any one specific word orphrase, but a whole situation. “I hitchhiked back to town, got picked upby an alien spacecraft and was subjected to humiliating medicalexperiments, which is why I didn’t get my paper done on time.” Inconversation this sort of thing goes unnoticed, but more care needs tobe taken in writing. There are lots of ways to reorganize this sentenceto avoid the vague reference. You could replace “which is why” with “so,” for instance.Sometimes the referent is only understood and not directly expressed atall: “Changing your oil regularly is important, which is one reason yourengine burned up.” The “which”refers to an implied failure to changeoil regularly, but doesn’t actually refer back to any of the specificwords used earlier in the sentence.Sometimes there is no logical referent: “In the book it says thatShakespeare was in love with some “dark lady” .” This is a casual way ofusing “it” that is not acceptable in formal written English. Writeinstead “Arthur O. Williams says in The Sonnets that Shakespeare. . . .”A reference may be ambiguous because it’s not clear which of tworeferents is meant: “Most women are attracted to guys with a good senseof humor unless they are into practical jokes.” Does “they’refer to“women” or “guys”? It would be clearer if the sentence said “Most womenare attracted to guys with a good sense of humor, though not usually topractical jokers.”
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