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An antecedent is a literary device in which a pronoun or noun refers to an earlier phrase or word.

It is a grammatical and linguistic term that refers to a part of speech that is entirely common and used in literature and everyday speech. The prefix “ante” means “before” or “in front of”. 

This complex-sounding definition is actually quite simple. It helps to break down the parts of this definition. 

  • A clause is made up of words or phrases. They are made up of at least one verb and a subject. 
  • A pronoun refers to the participants in a phrase, for example: I and me are first-person pronouns. You is a second person pronoun and she, he, her, and him are third-person pronouns. There are also possessive pronouns. These include: my, hers, yours, and his. 
  • A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. 

A basic example of an antecedent in action is the sentence “Please consider allowing my friends and family to attend the concert, they deserve to see it too.” 

In bold are the antecedents, friends and family, while in italics is the pronoun that refers back to the antecedents. 


Antecedent or Postcedent? 

These terms are often confused due to their grammatical origins and the identical suffixes but they are actually exact opposites. Postcedent refers to something that is “after” or “behind”. A sentence with a postcedent would read: “Whenever it’s done, I’ll have the first piece of cake”. 


Purpose of Antecedent 

An antecedent is a crucial grammatical device that is very useful for writers when they want to avoid repetition. It allows them to exchange the phrase or word for its pronoun rather than repeat that word over and over again. This occurs successfully when the sentence/s still make sense to the reader. The writing should remain clear and precise and convey the same meaning even if a name or object is replaced with a pronoun. 


Examples of Antecedents in Literature 

Example #1 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou 

In what is likely her best-known book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, there are several good examples of antecedents. Take for example this famous passage: 

Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God that I was grateful.

In bold is the antecedent and in italics are the pronouns that follow. This is a good example of how setting a sentence up in this way allows the writer to expand on the reader’s understanding of a subject without having to restate that subject over and over. The reader is well aware that the speaker is still discussing Bailey when the words “he” and “him” are used. 


Example #2 A Poison Tree by William Blake

For an example from poetry take a look at these lines from one of Blake’s best poem, ‘A Poison Tree’. 

[…] 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 section of the poem provides the reader with two examples of antecedents that are then replaced by their pronouns in the following lines. The first is “foe” which is referred to as “it” in the second line. The second is “wrath” which is referred to as “it” in lines three and five. These are interesting examples as they also make use of personification. 


Example #3 Othello by William Shakespeare 

As one might expect there are numerous interesting examples of antecedents being used in the works of William Shakespeare. Take for example this short excerpt from one of his most famous play, Othello: 

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 these complex and beautiful lines, a careful reader can discover than “wind” is the antecedent and “it” is the pronoun that replaces it in the third line. Locating the antecedent and pronoun in Shakespeare’s work is often not an easy task. 

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