Pronoun Reference: It Just Proves There's Someone for Everyone
It Just Proves There's Someone for Everyone
To prevent unclear pronoun reference, make a pronoun clearly refer to a single antecedent. A common writing problem occurs when the same pronoun refers to more than one antecedent. For example, in the last example in the preceding section, “them” can refer to guilt, bitterness, and cruelty as well as your family.
Can you hear the logic in that sentence circling the drain? Can you hear your reader screaming for mercy? Thank goodness, help is on the way. Clarify the sentence by replacing the unclear pronouns with nouns. That way, all the remaining pronouns will clearly refer to a single antecedent. Here are two ways you could rewrite this sentence:
Quoth the Maven
Make a pronoun clearly refer to a single antecedent.
Remember that a pronoun replaces a noun. To make sure that your writing is clear, always use the noun before you use the pronoun.
- Guilt, bitterness, and cruelty can be emotionally destructive to you and your family. You must get rid of these emotions.
- Guilt, bitterness, and cruelty can be emotionally destructive to you and your family. You must get rid of these destructive feelings.
The Numbers Game
There's no rule that limits the number of pronouns you can use—as long as each pronoun clearly refers to a single antecedent. For example:
- The office manager bought cheap, knock-off keyboards for his steno pool, but they fell apart quickly because they were not suited to heavy use.
The pronoun “his” refers to the office manager; the pronoun “they” refers to the “keyboards.”
Tag, You're It
How about giving it a shot? Rewrite each of the following sentences to make the pronouns clearly refer to their antecedents. Not to panic: Remember that there's more than one way to skin a cat, make decent coffee, and fix unclear pronoun references.
- When Fred and Louie return home, he will call.
- When Dennis spoke to Keith that morning, he did not realize that he might win the lottery by the end of the day.
- When the rain started, we pulled out an umbrella and opened it. It dampened our spirits for a while, but we decided to stick it out.
- If you asked Doug to describe Nick, he would say that he was sly, boring, and cheap—and then he would chuckle.
- Ask Nick about Doug, and he would say that, while he couldn't be a gossip, he was sure that he had links with the Young Republicans.
- He didn't consider him a safe driver, either.
- When Fred and Louie return home, Fred will call. (Or Louie could be doing the calling just as easily.)
- When Dennis spoke to Keith that morning, Dennis did not realize that he might win the lottery by the end of the day. (Again, Keith might just as easily have been the winner.)
- When the rain started, we pulled out an umbrella and opened it. The rain dampened our spirits for a while, but we decided to stick it out.
- If you asked Doug to describe Nick, Doug would say that Nick was sly, boring, and cheap and—then Doug would chuckle.
- Ask Nick about Doug, and Nick would say that, while he couldn't be a gossip, he was sure that Doug had links with the Young Republicans.
- Nick didn't consider Doug a safe driver, either.
Location, Location, Location: Placement of Pronouns
Quoth the Maven
Place pronouns close to their antecedents.
Take My Word for It
When you start a new paragraph, repeat the noun from the previous paragraph rather than using a pronoun in its place. Repeating the noun (usually a name) can help your reader more easily follow your logic.
Another way to avoid confusing pronoun reference is to go for the squeeze play: Place pronouns as close to their antecedents as logically possible. If too many phrases come between a pronoun and its antecedent, the pronouns may get muddied. This can happen even if the intervening material is logically related to the rest of the sentence. Here are some examples:
Confusing: The statement that the dog catcher made and that she issued it as a formal policy inflamed the city council, who knew it would result in widespread anger.
Clear: The dog catcher made a statement and the Mayor issued a formal policy. This inflamed the City Council, which knew this policy would result in widespread anger.
Confusing: Prehistoric people used many inorganic substances difficult to find at archaeological sites, which included clay and rock.
Clear: Prehistoric people used many inorganic substances, including clay and rock, which are difficult to find at archaeological sites.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.