A common mistake in writing is that the author uses a pronoun or similar, and it is not sufficiently clear to what this pronoun refers. For example:

Alice saw Carol. She was visibly excited.

Here it is unclear whether she refers to Alice or Carol.

If reviewing a text, I would mark single instances of such a mistake by annotating the pronoun with unclear reference. However, if I want to describe this problem in general, unclear reference can be ambiguous. For example, my review of a text could read:

The manuscript is hard to follow because of several unclear references.

Here it is ambiguous whether I speak of:

  • unclear “short-range” references, such as pronouns or similar,
  • unclear “long-range” references, such as “in Section 5”, or
  • unclear external references, such as citations.

Thus I ask: Is there is any concise and unambiguous way to refer to the first kind of mistake, i.e., a term that could replace unclear references in the above example? For whatever it’s worth, German has a term for this, namely unklarer Bezug, but I could not find it translated in dictionaries or similar.

  • 1
    Off the top of my head, you could speak about ambiguity of the subject, ambiguous antecedent, a run-on sentence. For longer passages/citations, "unclear reference" is too vague and you will need to be more specific, how else will the author understand? But maybe professional copy editors, proofreaders and academicians who review papers have their own terms.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 4, 2022 at 10:45
  • "Ambiguous pronouns" or "unclear pronoun use" or anything like that. Not aware of a more specific term.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 4, 2022 at 11:08
  • I would mark it "unclear as to referent" or, more directly, "clarify referent."
    – Greybeard
    Sep 4, 2022 at 11:19
  • @Mari-Lou A Yes, BioMedical Editor has 'An ambiguous pronoun antecedent occurs when a pronoun has two or more possible antecedents.' But I'd say that there aren't enough hits in a Google search for "ambiguous pronoun antecedent" to consider it a compound noun or fixed phrase. Sep 4, 2022 at 14:37
  • I'm not sure but I've heard of lexical ambiguity.
    – NVZ
    Sep 4, 2022 at 18:35

2 Answers 2


"Ambiguous antecedent" is the most concise and accurate description of the error you are discussing. Fowler uses the term "principal" rather than antecedent, but antecedent is what I learned in school.

The OED gives the meaning of "antecedent" that I suggest.

  • Thank you for your answer. Can you please edit it to add some references for this term?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 5, 2022 at 8:59
  • "Antecedent" (Latin for 'coming before') is the term for the noun or noun phrase that relative clauses modify. In the man who came to dinner, the relative clause who came to dinner has a relative pronoun who which refers to the antecedent man. I.e, the man = who. Both restrictive (integrated) and non-restrictive relatives, with or without comma, have antecedents. In fact, all pronouns have antecedents, which usually come before the pronouns, except in special cases like Before she was elected president, Marilyn used to curse a lot. Sep 5, 2022 at 16:19

When the pronoun doesn't agree with the verb the technical term is "pronoun discordance". I think this is one of the many examples of German terminology being much more precise and succinct (let's maybe not dwell on words like "Brustwarze").

"Lack of/unclear/ambiguous pronoun concordance" hardly rolls off the tongue; maybe something like "unclear/ambiguous pronoun agreement" might work.

P.S: maybe the best solution to this would be saying "valency issues", because presumably it's not only pronouns but noun phrases that can be confused: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valency_(linguistics)

  • Sorry, but this not about pronouns not agreeing with the verb. I edited the question in hope to make it clear what I want to describe.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 4, 2022 at 18:33

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