Pronoun reference: Analyze these sentences

I was reading a history of World War I and came across two sentences that I had to read three times: Twice to figure out the pronoun reference and a third time to figure out whether the pronoun reference is correct.

The two sentences could be turned into a good informal writing prompt about pronoun references.  Give students 30-60 seconds to respond to this prompt:

“Meanwhile, General Sir Ian Hamilton had been given the command of the MEF by Kitchener on 12 March. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”

The grammatical rule for pronoun reference is that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun. Does the pronoun he in the second sentence follow that rule?  Explain your reasoning in no more than three sentences.

Follow up with this 30-60 second writing prompt:

Rewrite the first sentence so that there’s no doubt to whom he in the second sentence refers.

Using grammatical terms, identify what’s different about your rewritten sentence and the original sentence.

The he in the original second sentence is Hamilton.  The first sentence is written in passive voice.  Apparently Jenny MacLeod or her editor made the pronoun he in the second sentence refer to what would have been the last preceding pronoun if the first sentence had been written in active voice. I don’t know whether that’s normal practice in Britain, or just an oddity.


If you put the sentence in normal, active voice order (subject, verb, object), the two sentences would read:


“Meanwhile, on March 12 Kitchener had given General Sir Ian Hamilton command of the MEF. The next day, he crossed the English Channel to France and took a train to Marseilles, where he boarded a destroyer which brought him to the island of Tenedos on 17 March.”


You could use this set of informal writing prompts to introduce or review information about active/passive voice or pronoun referents or as a quick exercise in editing for clarity.

The quoted sentences are from Gallipoli by Jenny MacLeod, which is part of the Great Battles series published by Oxford University Press.

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Instead of using publisher-created "grammar" exercises with my students, I collect items I find in print in ads, newsletters, signs, etc., and have students identify the errors in the items and suggest corrections. 

Such "found" exercises are much more realistic than the ones publishers create. Unlike the grammar exercises, the real-world examples often have more than one error, just as students’ own writing often does. 

Also, a found example doesn’t come with directions telling students what type of error to look for any more than students’ own writing does.

And since I give credit (or, if you prefer, assign blame) to the sources, students readily understand how written errors negatively affect public perception of the writers. 

The found items make great informal writing prompts because they are short, often funny, and always unpredictable.

The highlight box below gives an example of a 2-minute informal writing prompt using found materials.

Here’s a sentence I plucked from the package of a ream of paper:

The perfect everyday multipurpose paper guaranteed for any printer, copier, and fax machines.

Repair that sentence. Then explain, preferably using appropriate ELA terminology, what the errors were that you corrected.