In a technical text, I once wrote a sentence similar to the following one:

As the aforementioned notion of the maximal doodad is based on the long thingum, this notion targets extended hickeys, such as whatsits or gizmos.

Here, the long thingum, the maximal doodad, extended hickeys, whatsits, and gizmos refer to some technical concepts irrelevant and not explainable here.

My English proofreader (whom I cannot ask any longer) corrected this to

As the aforementioned notion of the maximal doodad is based on the long thingum, it targets extended hickeys, such as whatsits or gizmos.

Purely grammatically speaking, does “it” refer to the subject of the preceding subordinate clause (the subject “the above notion of the maximal doodad”) or to object of the preceding subordinate clause (the object “the long thingum”)? Or is the English grammar silent about this and the antecedent of “it” is ambiguous?

  • 1
    It is notion above. Not above notion. Put that in your personal notes for later reference.
    – Lambie
    Feb 23, 2022 at 1:27
  • @Lambie Right. Thanks! “As the notion above of the maximal doodad is based on […]” would likely mislead the reader. “Above” replaced with “aforementioned” for the purpose of this example. (Though, in reality, I unfortunately did use “above”.) Which of “the preceding/aforesaid/said/anterior/precedent/above-mentioned/above-named/above-indicated/above-stated notion” would also be grammatical, idiomatic, and understandable?
    – user142975
    Feb 24, 2022 at 14:33
  • Above and aforementioned are not the same thing exactly, fyi.
    – Lambie
    Feb 24, 2022 at 15:24
  • @Lambie Though that's right in general (e.g., on the topmost line of a book page, there is nothing above it in the most strict sense of the word), the two words are semantically interchangeable in my particular context.
    – user142975
    Feb 24, 2022 at 15:27

1 Answer 1


As a matter of grammar, a pronoun refers to a noun, usually a preceding noun. There is no grammatical rule that specifies which noun a pronoun refers to.

However, as a matter of writing clearly, it is recommended that a pronoun refer to the immediately preceding noun unless the context makes clear that the pronoun can logically apply only to some other noun.

Now, because your use of nonsense words means that we have no clue about context, my feeling is that your repeating “this notion” avoids any ambiguity. However, is it really the notion or the maximal doodad itself that targets extended hickeys? This may have been the reason your proofreader replaced “this notion.”

Assuming it is maximal doodads that target extended hickeys rather than a notion, you can make the sentence concise without any chance of ambiguity with

Because the long thingum is the basis of maximal doodads, they target extended hickeys …

In short, it avoids ambiguity to put a pronoun close to the noun it refers to, but context may permit you some flexibility.

  • Thanks! Be aware: the maximal doodad is singluar, so, we cannot write “they”. As for the context, I cannot (legally) provide it, and even if I could, I'd need a great deal to explain the technology behind it. Btw., isn't there is a rule to never start a sentence with “because”?
    – user142975
    Sep 10, 2021 at 23:10
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    @GeekestGeek, you can start a sentence with "because" as long as there is both a subordinate clause and a main clause. The "rule" is only a guideline to discourage people from writing sentence fragments (e.g. "Because it's cold." <- no main clause).
    – Sabrina
    Sep 11, 2021 at 0:47
  • @GeekestGeek Context is frequently important and sometimes crucial. If you cannot (for whatever reason) provide any context to your question, you will often have to be satisfied with amorphous responses. Sep 11, 2021 at 1:43
  • @JeffMorrow As you see, my question is intentionally more about syntax rather than about the semantics. As for your suggestion of reorganizing the sentence: unfortunately, I cannot use it because doodad is singluar in my question.
    – user142975
    Sep 13, 2021 at 19:06
  • I already said that there is no grammatical rule relating a pronoun to a noun. I further said that i agreed with you that repeating “notion” eliminated any ambiguity. As far as I am concerned, your proofreader was misguided. Because there is no context, your syntax seems superior. That might change with context. I do not understand the conceptual difficulty in letting context (semantics) resolve syntactical ambiguities. If you cannot share that context, then you are left with the syntactical ambiguity. Sep 13, 2021 at 20:30

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