Beware Pronouns!

rogersgeorge on October 19th, 2011

Pronouns are notoriously vague. Try never to use them, at least not in technical expository writing. Pronouns are problematic because they refer to something else, and often you have more than one “something else” that the pronoun could refer to. The rule is that a pronoun should refer to the closest noun that came before the pronoun. This rule is very easy to break. For example, recently I got an email from a colleague that said, in its entirety,

It should have been copied to the document server section.

The pronoun had no antecedent at all!

Here’s an example of breaking the rule and getting away with it. It’s slightly amended from a New York Times article a while back.

If your past employers gave you odd titles like “gatorbox wrangler” or vague ones like “senior administrator,” replace them with industry standard terms like “sales engineer” and “accounts payable specialist.” Otherwise, you’ll never be found, because no one will type those into LinkedIn’s search box.

The pronoun to look at is near the end of the quote: “those.” Common sense tells us that the writer could not be referring to the second (and closer) set of titles. But the sentence would be unequivocal if we change the pronoun to a demonstrative adjective and described the antecedent more plainly: “…type those unconventional terms into… .”

Two final examples.

Look at the first paragraph in this post. The second sentence ends with “them.” Look back—no nouns at all until you get to the first word in the post, and that’s the antecedent.

Here’s a trickier one—the last sentence before the quote. “I got an email from a colleague that said…” What does “that” refer to? Looking backwards, the first noun is “colleague,” and colleagues can certainly say things, but I hope you didn’t think I’d use “that” for people. We use “who” for people! So you have to keep looking, and you come to “email.” The email said, and that fits far better with the end of the sentence, “in its entirety.”

Now we have reached the end. “We” being you, dear reader, and me.

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