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Pronoun Management 101


Ah, the pronoun. That accommodating temp, able to replace a tired noun at the tap of a few keys. Imagine where we would be without it.

  • George placed George’s suit jacket, hat and briefcase in the trunk of George’s car, locked the jacket, hat and briefcase up tight, then walked into George’s unknown future.

A few pronouns take this sentence from cumbersome to manageable.

Pronouns bring variety and conciseness to writing, but they are not as elastic as they appear. They can’t fill in just anywhere, and their abilities aren’t limitless. Subscribe to the following three principles of pronoun management and you’ll get the most from these flexible replacements without wearing them out.

Pronouns and nouns should stick together

Pronouns are easily stranded. Never let one stray too far from its antecedent (the noun it replaces); otherwise, the reader will lose track of what the pronoun means. Look what happens in this paragraph:

  • The fifteenth-century castle has been owned and maintained by descendants of the von Lurid family since 1543, when the property and all its outbuildings were ceded to Lord Johann von Lurid after a decade of bloody battle over land title. The family has managed to keep it despite financial instability over the centuries.

Most readers, when they see it in the last sentence, need a moment to make the connection with castle, the noun it is replacing. That’s because there’s too much distance between the pronoun and its antecedent. To complicate matters further, some readers may think that it refers to land title or property, both intervening nouns that could fit the bill. For the sake of clarity, it’s best to repeat the noun castle in the last sentence.

In a similar vein, it’s generally unwise to begin a paragraph with a pronoun. Because a paragraph is a separate, almost stand-alone block of ideas, it should reintroduce the nouns it refers to. Consider this passage:

  • Wild About Beets, a co-production of the Bureau of Agriculture and the East Valley Beet Growers Association, is an eye-opening documentary about the many uses of this versatile vegetable. The 45-minute film explores the benefits of beets in household products ranging from soups and cakes to dyes and paints. Following a gala premiere at noon tomorrow, it will run for three weeks at the East Valley Library.

The second paragraph needs to restate the noun being discussed. One option is to repeat Wild About Beets; another is to use the film or a similar noun.

Pronouns can’t do two jobs at once

Pronouns are handy and versatile, but take care not to double-book them. A pronoun can fill in for only one noun at a time. If there’s more than one noun in the vicinity, a pronoun can become ambiguous.

  • When Stanton visited his father in February, he did not know that he would be dead within two months.

In this sentence, who lives and who dies? Who doesn’t know about whose death beforehand?

Ambiguity is hardly limited to personal pronouns. Relative pronouns, including that and which, can be just as confusing when in the company of more than one plausible noun.

  • We worked all night on the float for the parade that our company was going to sponsor.

Is it the float or the parade that the company is sponsoring? Again, the pronoun is unclear.

Don’t send a pronoun on a noun’s business

Like temps in the work world, pronouns are sometimes given tasks beyond their abilities. Writers tend to stretch pronouns, forcing them to encompass an idea or sum up a train of thought. But the poor pronoun can’t live up to the strain. It can’t replace an idea, a sentence or a paragraph; it can only replace a noun or a noun phrase.

It’s tempting to overtax pronouns this way. When we write, it’s hard to think of the right word, so much simpler to call on a familiar, all-purpose pronoun instead. However, pronouns that lack antecedents are often vague.

  • We pulled our spare tire from the trunk and put it on. This dampened our spirits for a while, but we decided to go on.

Presumably, this refers to getting a flat tire. But it could also refer to the labour of installing the spare or the delay associated with the incident. The sentence is unclear because it relies on a pronoun instead of a noun or noun phrase that states precisely what dampened our spirits.

In some cases, stretching a pronoun can seriously interfere with meaning.

  • He exercises control over all forms of media, commands the Revolutionary Guard and appoints six members of the powerful Council of Statesmen. This effectively solidifies his control over the country.

Does this refer to just one of the powers in the previous sentence, or to a combination of two, or to all three together?

Even when the meaning is clear, it’s best to avoid using a pronoun to replace a virtual noun, one that’s either implied or expressed as another part of speech.

  • Isabelle, who has taken to wearing jodhpurs and brandishing a riding crop, talks extensively about the techniques of horsemanship despite never having ridden one in her life.

It’s obvious that one means a horse. But the problem is, the noun horse never appears in the passage. A pronoun should always replace a real noun, one that’s actually on the page.

Always the stand-in and never the star, the pronoun is nonetheless an indispensable part of speech. Manage it carefully, use it for what it’s intended, and it will do a competent job for you every time.

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