I was speaking to a college-educated American woman in her 80s, born and raised in the metropolitan east coast of the United States.

We were on a new topic, and without any preceding context, she said:

Her accountant told Janet that she really ought to diversify her portfolio.

It's a very efficient construction, but I have never heard a native English speaker introduce a pronoun prior to its antecedent. For the first few words of her sentence, I was in some suspense, wondering what she was referring to.

I know that some other languages can introduce placeholders which get filled in later in the sentence, but I'm not aware of anything equivalent in English.

Is this a known construction among any segment of the English-speaking population?

  • 6
    Your example with "her" before coreferent Janet is perfectly okay in English -- in all dialects, so far as I know.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 18:36
  • 1
    You might be interested in government and binding theory (specifically, principles A, B, and C), which cover this sort of thing.
    – anomaly
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 13:49
  • You might add the contrastive utterance: Janet's accountant told her blah blah blah. For example. Bear in mind that her is a possessive pronoun not a subject or object pronoun...
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 25 at 17:06

2 Answers 2


Yes, it's been extensively studied; perhaps the first paper was Ron Langacker's 1966 "On Pronominalization and the Chain of Command". The major generalization seems to be statable as

  • A pronoun may not both precede and command its antecedent.

In the following examples Marilyn('s) and her are meant to be co-referential:

  1. I talked to Marilyn before her operation. (Pronoun does not command or precede antecedent)
  2. Before her operation I talked to Marilyn. (Pronoun precedes but does not command)
  3. Before Marilyn's operation I talked to her. (Pronoun commands but does not precede)
  4. *I talked to her before Marilyn's operation. (Pronoun precedes and commands - ungrammatical)

"Command" (sometimes called "C-Command") is a technical relation between constituents in syntax; "A commands B" essentially means "A is in a higher clause than B". The reason (4) is ungrammatical is that the antecedent is in a subordinate clause while the pronoun is in the main clause, and the pronoun comes before the antecedent. You can do one or the other -- or neither -- but not both.

  • I don't think Command and C-command have become synonyms. Command concerns only clause structure.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 18:33
  • 1
    A further note: the fact that "her" in the example can precede its antecedent "Janet" is a fact of English independent of any linguist's description of it. So "yes" really answers the question.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 18:53
  • 7
    #4 is actually grammatical, but it must mean that "Marilyn" and "her" refer to different people. There is no way for them to be co-referential.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 0:06
  • 1
    @GregLee- do you really think that "His dog bit John", without context, suffices to tell us that it is John's dog?
    – amI
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 4:51

A famous historic document uses this construction, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at the beginning of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916: "In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradtion of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom."

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