I think I understand that an expressed antecedent is the word or set of words, actually stated, which provide meaning to a pronoun or pro-form. That is, the pronoun or pro-form refers to the same entity as was referred to by the antecedent.

However, how exactly do we define an unexpressed antecedent? Is it any possible word or set of words which, following the parameters of the context, could be inserted into the sentence(s), such that the pronoun or pro-form would refer to the same entity?

For example, in: 'I do not know who lives next door', we could say that the pronoun 'who' refers to the same entity as would the words, 'the person', or 'the individual', etc., in which case the unexpressed antecedent is actually one among many possible but unstated parts of speech.

Is this how the concept is usually defined, or am I overlooking something else?

Thanks for your help!

1 Answer 1


Linguistics does not use the terms "expressed antecedent" and "unexpressed antecedent", that is terminology of composition classes. However, we do deal with "co-reference" and we would say that the antecedent of "he" could be, for example, "John". There is a huge amount of linguistic literature on whether a pronoun and an overt nominal in a sentence can be coreferential – this is known as "binding". For example "John said that he would confess" (they can be but do not have to be), "John saw himself" (they must be), "John saw him" (they cannot be), "He confessed after John woke up" (they cannot be), "After John woke up, he confessed" (they can be). Nothing within the sentence binds "he" or "her" to anyone in "He saw her", but pragmatically one can often reconstruct the intended reference. Only context allows you to assign a reference to "I" and "you". The referent of non-reflexive pronouns is free (can always be interpreted as referring to something outside the sentence).

Free relatives, as in "I see what you did" can be analyzed (Bresnan & Grimshaw) as having an invisible (object) pronoun to which "what" is bound.

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