Definition of Antecedent

Antecedent is an earlier clause, phrase, or word to which a pronoun, noun, or another word refers. Broadly speaking, antecedent is a literary device in which a word or pronoun in a line or sentence refers to an earlier word. For instance, “While giving treats to children or friends offer them whatever they like.” In this line, children and friends are antecedents, while they is a pronoun that refers to friends and children. It is a typical linguistic term and originates from grammar.

Often antecedents and their respective pronouns agree in number, which means if an antecedent is singular, the pronoun that replaces it will also be singular. However, sometimes writers might not follow this rule, and we see singular antecedents are replaced with plural pronouns. Likewise, antecedents and their following pronouns have the same gender.

Difference Between Antecedent and Postcedent

These terms are opposite to one another, as antecedent refers to in front of or before. It is an expression that gives meaning to a proform (a noun, pronoun, pro-adverb or pro-verb). Hence, proforms follow their respective antecedents such as “Elizabeth says, she likes coffee.” Sometimes these proforms or pronouns precede them that are called postcedents, meaning behind or after such as, “when it gets ready, I shall definitely get my cup of tea.”

Common Examples of Antecedent

  • David plays football in the courtyard. All the children have gathered there.
  • My uncle likes candies. He asks everyone to give him candies as gifts.
  • When children are happy, they clap to express their pleasure.
  • The leaves have turned yellow; even then they are on the tree.
  • The bird ate the fish quickly, and immediately it
  • A good story must have a quality about it; it must have characters, a setting, narration, and dialogues.

Examples of Antecedent in Literature

Example #1: Ode to Autumn (By John Keats)

“And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cell.”

In the above lines, bees are used as antecedent, and the pronouns “they” and “their” refer to this noun used earlier. See that the antecedent and its pronouns are italicized. If we remove the pronouns, these lines will have an entirely different and confusing impression, and the meaning will change.

Example #2: A Comedy of Errors (By William Shakespeare)

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
And every one doth call me by my name.
Some tender money to me; some invite me …”

Here, Shakespeare uses pronouns of vague reference by employing a singular antecedent, “a man,” with the plural pronoun “their.” However, the noun everyone is singular, and both agree in their numbers. The speaker tries to explain he did not meet a single person, but everyone knew his name, and hence refers to everyone as “their.”

Example #3: A Poison Tree (By William Blake)

“… I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles …”

This poem presents a very good example of antecedent, in which the speaker uses the noun “foe” as antecedent, and replaces it with the pronoun “it” in the very next line. Similarly, he again makes use of “wrath” as an antecedent, and replaces it with “it.”

Example #4: Othello (By William Shakespeare)

“Me thinks the wind has spoke aloud at land,
A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements
If it hath ruffianed so upon the sea
What ribs of oak, when mountains melt on them …”

In this excerpt, the antecedent is “wind,” and the pronoun “it” is its denotation, replacing it in the third line. Antecedent makes these lines clear and easy to understand for the readers.

Function of Antecedent

Antecedent is a very important and useful literary device, as it makes the sense of a sentence clear to the readers. By using references such as they, their, them, it, he, and she without any antecedent subject would become confusing. Hence, antecedent makes the composition words, grammar, and the expression of the writers clear and precise, as without it, a sentence remains vague and cannot convey exact meaning. It is a tricky concept, though a worthwhile rule to grasp, because it helps writers improve their writing style too.

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