SKILLS: Understanding reference words in English

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Some people believe that a university education should be available to everyone as a university education will help with employment.

The problem here is that ‘university education’ has been repeated – the sentence would have been better presented using a reference word like this:

Some people believe that a university education should be available to everyone as this will help with employment.

Reference words (words that refer back to a previous word or phrase but without repeating it) are very common many reading texts and can often cause some confusion. An important part of understanding a text is being able to identify the reference words and their relationship to other words, phrases or sentences.

Test your skills – what do the underlined words refer to? Choose the correct letter A-C.

New Zealand is becoming an increasingly popular destination for overseas visitors. It attracts tourists and people on business, but the vast majority come as students. Mostly from Asian countries, they stay for anything from a few weeks to a few years or more, studying at language schools, colleges and universities. New Zealand can offer good homestay accommodation, a clean and beautiful environment and a reasonable cost of tuition. These factors attract an ever-increasing number of overseas students, accounting for millions of dollars in revenue for New Zealand.

It refers to

(a) overseas

(b) New Zealand

(c) a popular destination

Show answer(B) – New Zealand


They refers to

(a) Asian countries

(b) tourists and business people

(c) students

Show answer(C) – students


These factors refers to

(a) accommodation, environment and reasonable tuition costs

(b) schools, colleges, universities

(c) increasing overseas students

Show answer(A) – accommodation, environment and reasonable tuition costs


Now try using reference words the other way round. What reference word could replace the underlined words?

  1. Professor Edwards has been lecturing for 16 years.
  2. Overseas students often find university courses difficult.
  3. The IELTS test is becoming increasingly popular.
  1. Professor Edwards … Show answerHe
  2. Overseas students … Show answerThey
  3. The IELTS test … Show answerIt


Tip 1: Subject or object reference words

Be careful – reference words can change depending on whether they are the subject or the object of the sentence. For example:

Overseas students often find university courses difficult.

  • They often find university courses difficult.
  • Overseas students often find them difficult.

Mr Smith works with Mr Jones every day.

  • He works with Mr Jones every day.
  • Mr Smith works with him every day.


Tip 2: Singular and plural

When talking generally, you may find that some singular nouns take a plural reference word. For example:

A teacher (singular) should always be prepared. They (plural) should also be punctual.
Tip 3: The dummy subject

Sometimes ‘it’ can appear in a sentence but it is not a true reference word – it doesn’t refer back to anything specific. This is called the dummy subject. For example:

It is commonly accepted that people with a higher education generally work in higher paid jobs.

In the sentence above, ‘it’ does not refer to anything specific, just the general situation.

Practice by reading the sentences below and deciding whether ‘it’ is used as a reference word or a dummy subject.

  1. Look at those clouds. It’s going to rain.
  2. Homework is essential. It allows students to review work they have studied in class.
  3. Admittedly, student depression is hard to investigate as few people are willing to talk openly about it.
  4. It can take up to four years to complete a degree.
  5. Otago is a very popular university. It was the first university in New Zealand.

1.  Show answerThis is a dummy subject

2.  Show answerThis is a reference word

3.  Show answerThis is a reference word

4.  Show answerThis is a dummy subject

5.  Show answerThis is a reference word


Now test yourself. Read the text below and decide what the underlined reference words refer to.

Academic overdrive?

Student life is becoming increasingly difficult. Not only are students expected to perform and compete within the class, but also to devote time and energy to extra-curricular activities as well as struggle with an increasing load of homework. The push to get into the top universities has caused many overachieving students to take on heavier workloads and more challenging classes.

This push, however, doesn’t end once students reach university. In fact, when they reach the top places they have worked so hard to get into, many students are forced to work even harder than they did in high school. Once in the top universities, the pressure is on to secure a place in the top graduate school. But it doesn’t end there. Once students have graduated with the best results, they find that they must continue to overextend themselves in order to secure the top jobs in their particular field. Such is the emphasis on academic success.

There are many who claim that this entire system is wrong because it puts too much emphasis on measuring achievement and not enough on true learning. This in turn has inevitable effects on the students themselves. In such a high-pressure learning environment, those that find the pressure overwhelming have nowhere to turn. In an academic world measured only by academic success, many students begin to feel a low sense of worth, yet they fear to turn to anyone for help as this would be perceived as a signal of failure, an inability to cope with that which other students appear to have no problem. This can be particularly hard for foreign students as they find themselves isolated without familiar cultural or family ties in their new environment and thus they concentrate solely on their work.

Perhaps the main thing to remember is that although it is important to study hard, school life should also be fun.

  1. This push refers to…… Show answerThe push to get into top universities
  2. They refers to…… Show answerOverachieving students (not just ‘students’)
  3. It refers to…… Show answerThe pressure
  4. There refers to…… Show answerAt top universities
  5. This refers to…… Show answerOverachieving / overextending / pressurised (system)
  6. Those refers to…… Show answerStudents who have overextended themselves
  7. This refers to…… Show answerThe situation where students feel depressed, have low self esteem, feel that they cannot talk to anyone
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