Is there a rule in English regarding whether a pronoun or the subject it refers to should appear in the subordinate clause of a complex sentence?

  1. Simple example: “Whenever the little girl/she eats pizza, she/the little girl gets sick.”

Should the pronoun she or the subject the little girl appear in the subordinate clause? Is one choice wrong or is this a matter of taste and style?

  1. Complex example: "In the form that the history of literature/it took as it emerged out of the historicist culture of the nineteenth century, it/the history of literature tended consciously or unconsciously to imagine series of works and cultural periods in terms of a perpetual metamorphosis or a permanent revolution."

Should the history of literature or it appear in the first clause?

  1. Is there a rule about this in English? If so, how do I describe it in grammatical terms?
  • 2
    Yes, there is a rule, but it requires you to recognize subordinate clauses and what other clauses they're subordinate to. The rule is that a referential pronoun may not both precede and command its antecedent (the noun phrase it refers to). Precede means 'occur prior to'; but command is more complex. Any two words in the same clause command each other, and they also command any words in clauses that are subordinate to the clause they occur in. In all your examples, the antecedent preceded the pronoun, but did not command it, because it was in a subordinate clause. Mar 27, 2016 at 1:04
  • Many thanks for your answer, John. So in both my examples, either choice is acceptable? Did I get that right?
    – Zaza Peel
    Mar 27, 2016 at 21:13
  • Note that the first three sentences are grammatical, but the fourth one isn't: (1) Before she was elected I used to date Marilyn. (2) Before Marilyn was elected I used to date her. (3) I used to date Marilyn before she was elected. (4) *I used to date her before Marilyn was elected. Mar 28, 2016 at 0:43
  • OK, I'm starting to get a clearer idea of what "command" signifies. Thank you.
    – Zaza Peel
    Mar 28, 2016 at 15:35

1 Answer 1


Both forward and backward pronominalization are okay when the pronoun does not precede and command its antecedent, where A is said to command B when every clause containing A also contains B. Pronominalization is "backward" when the pronoun precedes its antecedent. The direction of pronominalization was first described systematically by Ronald Langacker in a paper Pronominalization and the chain of command.

  • Greg, thank you so much for your explanation and the source. This is somewhat over my head, frankly. At least I have the term "direction of pronominalization" to hang on to now!
    – Zaza Peel
    Mar 27, 2016 at 21:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.