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Fear of Using Pronouns

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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Pronominal Phobia

As we conclude our discussion of the seven kinds of pronouns, I should pause to point out a problem with the writing styles of many people, particularly professionals.

For some unknown reason, professional people like to repeat professional people’s nouns and not use professional people’s pronouns because professional people think that professional people achieve a high degree of accuracy in professional people’s work by repeating professional people’s nouns.

Whew. See what I mean?

Why the fear of pronouns, folks? Isn’t it much better to use the pronoun whenever its antecedent is crystal clear? Of course it is. Why? Because the use of a pronoun forces your readers to fill in the mental blank and identify the antecedent. This mental task forces them to pay attention. Thus we write:

For some unknown reason, professional people like to repeat their nouns and not use their pronouns because they think they achieve a high degree of accuracy in their work by repeating their nouns.

Lawyers, yielding to their overwhelming urge to appear to write with precision, have a particularly difficult time condescending to use a pronoun now and again. Bryan Garner urges lawyers to overcome this fear. He wants legal writers to ease up on the problem of “ambiguous referents,” in one sentence making it humorously plain that a pronoun does not have to refer to the immediately preceding noun:

It is not simply that referential pronouns are avoided only where their use could raise genuine confusion; [in legal writing] they seem to be eschewed as a species. [Citation omitted.] The result is often a sentence that no native speaker of English—other than a lawyer—would ever perpetrate, such as: “Then Tina became very lethargic, at which time Tina was taken to the emergency room.”

Why the fear of pronouns? Because lawyers have overlearned the lesson that pronouns sometimes have ambiguous referents. That being so, they (the lawyers, not the referents) swear off using them (the pronouns, not the lawyers) altogether. Garner Legal, p. 702.

In Garner’s last sentence, he facetiously adds the parentheticals, which, of course, are totally unnecessary: From context, it’s plain what they refers to. Equally so, it’s plain what them refers to.


Previous: 7. Reciprocal Pronouns

Next: A Summary of Pronouns

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