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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. His car has broken down again!
  1. Professor Edwards … Show answerHe
  2. Overseas students … Show answerThey
  3. His car Show answerIt

Understanding reference words – 3 important tips
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



In the IELTS reading test, you will need to be very careful of reference words. That is, words like this, that, he, she, it and they. They refer back to previous parts of the reading passage and tell you exactly what the current sentence is talking about. Here is an example passage. The words in blue are reference words. Note how the first reference word – this – points back to the previous sentence, and is referring to stress. The second reference word – these factors – is plural, so refers back to more than one thing. In this example, it refers to pressure from work, home life and the daily commute in traffic jams. The third reference word in this passage is a little more complicated. Although it is a reference word, in this example it does not refer to anything specific. It is known as the dummy subject. Here are two other examples of ‘it’ being used as the dummy subject.

Reference words.


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