Antecedent Definition

Antecedent is an earlier clause, phrase or word to which a pronoun, another word or a noun refers back to. 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 these lines, children and friends are antecedents, while they is a pronoun, referring to friends and children. It is a typical linguistic term and originates from grammar.

Often antecedents and their respective pronouns agree in numbers, which means if antecedents are singular, the pronouns that replace them 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

Both of these terms are opposite to each other, 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 requests everyone to give him candies as gift.
  • 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 died.
  • A good story must a quality about it; it must have characters, setting, narration and dialogues.

Antecedent Examples from Literature

Example 1

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.

(From “Ode to Autumn” by John Keats)

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

Example 2

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;

(From “A Comedy of Errors” by William Shakespeare)

Here, Shakespeare uses pronoun of vague reference by employing singular antecedent “a man” with 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 calls everyone as “their.”

Example 3

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,…

(From “A Poison Tree” by William Blake)

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

Example 4

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 moutains melt on them…

(From “Othello” by William Shakespeare)

In this excerpt, antecedent is “wind” and 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 subject would become confusing to understand. 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 meanings. Besides, it is a tricky concept, however, a worthwhile rule to grasp, because it helps the writers improve their writing style too.

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