Clarity Issues? Try This Pronoun and Pointing Term Review

Pronouns and pointing terms (P/PTs) are the kind of small, seemingly insignificant bits of language we tend to gloss over as we edit—much like articles and the most common prepositions. Unfortunately, P/PTs carry tremendous potential as agents of obscurity. The misuse of pronouns and pointing terms (P/PT) causes clarity issues that obscure the grammatical subject(s) and object(s) of a sentence. This can reduce the clarity of our prose, which, in turn, can mire the logic of our sentences and the power of Arguments via vague, poorly defined language. In this entry, we address a common mistake regarding the misuse and/or overuse of pronouns and pointing terms that obscures the Clarity, Grammar, and Usage of our prose. If you’re having trouble sorting out how to use pronouns with respect to gender or plural-singular agreement, no worries: Purdue Owl has an excellent page devoted to gender and tense confusion.

There is no easy fix, but the following steps may be helpful for improving clarity:

Step 1: Read your work out loud and circle every pronoun and pointing term in your essay. Then trace the P/PT to its intended referent. Ask yourself these questions: Can I trace a direct line to my P/PT’s referent (i.e., the noun that it stands in for)? Are there other nouns in the previous sentence or clause that a reader could mistakenly think my P/PT addresses? Is my use of the P/PT clear to my imagined reader (likely a professor or editor)? Do I overuse P/PTs and lose track of my intended grammatical subject or object? If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, proceed to the following steps.

Step 2: Replace the pronoun or pointing term with another word—likely, the referent itself, which you used he, she, they, it, this, etc. in place of.

Step 3: Add a modifier to the pronoun or pointing term that helps identify the subject or object to which it refers.

We think the easiest approach to “revising” P/PT problems is to avoid them altogether. We know that’s a big ask especially as we use pronouns and pointing terms when we talk and type with friends and family. After all, P/PT are some of the little bits of language that we tend to overlook. We suggest practicing P/PT mindfulness when drafting. Thinking through P/PT usage as you draft takes time and patience. It may even slow your writing process down. But breaking the habit of unconsciously defaulting to undefined pronouns and pointing terms has a huge payoff.

EXAMPLES: PROBLEMS, EXPLANATIONS, and REMEDIATIONS

ON PRONOUNS

A brief note: “Specificity is Key” is one of three writing mantras I have taped to my desk when I write. I find having “Specificity is Key” around as I write helps me practice P/PT mindfulness. The other two are: “Say it Simply First” and “Clarity is All.”

Specificity is Key: Let these three words serve as your guide every time you employ a pronoun or pointing term (P/PT). Your reader should be able to easily and confidently identify the referent your pronouns and pointing terms address. All too often, we, as writers, assume too much of our readers. We always know who our “he, she, them, and they” address and to what our “this, that, those, and these” point to . . . our readers do not.

Example 1: They, their, our

DiAngelo writes, “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color” (62). They ignore their complicity and aggrandize our current efforts to end racism.

In the passage above, who are “they,” “their,” and the rather ethereal “our?

Explanation: 

For me, sentence two begins with a profound moment of cognitive dissonance that prevents me from appreciating the argument made by the author. “People of color” is the closest referent to the “they” and “their” of sentence two. When I read a pronoun, I tend to attach the pronoun to the closest identifiable grammatical subject or object. But here, that doesn’t make sense with respect to the claim made in the cited text. As a reader, I have to pause, trace the use of the pronoun to the contextually relevant referent before appraising the validity of the claim made by the author. This long process of pronoun allocation interrupts the flow of the author’s narrative and clouds the good work they do in engaging with DiAngelo’s text.

The “our” of sentence two has no readily identifiable referent in sentence one. We can only guess at what the author might mean. Society, perhaps?

Fix:

Replace “they” with “White Progressives.”

Left “their” as the referent clear with the addition of “White Progressives.”

Replace “our” with “society’s.”

Remediated:

DiAngelo writes, “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color” (62). White Progressives ignore their complicity and aggrandize society’s current efforts to end racism.

 

Example 2: he (see also, him, his, she, her, hers)

Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done more to popularize science over the past four decades than any two noble prize winners. His show, Cosmos, continues to influence generations of star-searchers.

Explanation:

This one’s easy . . . whose Cosmos does the author address in sentence two?

Fix:

Replace “his” with Sagan.

Remediated:

Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done more to popularize science over the past four decades than any two noble prize winners. Sagan’s show, Cosmos, continues to influence generations of star-searchers.

 

Example 3: it (arguably the most dangerous of all nonpersonal pronouns). Beware IT.

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

Unfortunately, the popular imagination has essentialized it into someone who hates men and make-up and femininity. Yet, it strives for the equal status of all people, rather than the annihilation of a group of people. It’s strength lies in equality not anger. It’s this kind of misrepresentation that undermines it to begin with.

Whoa! We’ve got a lot going on here. Let’s look at these “it”s again . . .

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

Unfortunately, the popular imagination has essentialized it into someone who hates men and make-up and femininity. Yet, it strives for the equal status of all people, rather than the annihilation of a group of people. It’s strength lies in equality not anger. It’s this kind of misrepresentation that undermines it to begin with.

Explanation:

it = Likely “Feminist”

it = if we’re tracking referants then the author likely means “Feminist,” which is grammaticly unsound. They probably mean “Feminism.”

it’s = techinically “Feminist’s,” which is still wierd. Also, we haven’t seen the term in a while.

it’s = What is? No referent at all.

it = Hmm, also “Feminist” but they really mean “Feminism” and now we’re separated by a host of possible referents including, “equality, strength, equal status, femininity, and popular imagination”

Passages like Example 3 are far more common than you might think, even at the graduate level. Here, as a reader, I suffer from the same kind of cognitive dissonance brought on by example 1. Can you see why?

Fix:

Replace “it” with “a Feminist.”

Replace “it” with “Feminism.”

Replace the incorrectly conjugated “It’s” with “Feminism’s.”

Rephrased sentence, excising unnecessary terms and replace “it” with “Feminism.”

Remediated:

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

Unfortunately, the popular imagination has essentialized a Feminist into someone who hates men and make-up and femininity. Yet, Feminism strives for the equal status of all people, rather than the annihilation of a group of people. Feminism’s strength lies in equality not anger. This kind of misrepresentation undermines Feminism.

 

ON POINTING TERMS

Example 4: This (see also that, these, those)

Adichie’s uses anecdotes in her article to convince her audience to be feminists. Yes, this is intended for both women and men. This effectively targets her audience, as this is clearly an introduction to feminism.

Explanation:

The proliferation of “This”es in example 4 for might seem hyperbolic. It’s not. Indeed, I see passages like example 4 all of the time in my own writing, especially if I am working with material that I am particularly familiar with. I don’t need help Orienting my argument. I know what I want to say. Unfortunately, your reader does not. Let’s break “this” down . . .

This = Adichie’s article or using anecdotes to convince her audience.

This = could refer to the previous, undefined “this,” Adichie’s article, or using anecdotes to convince her audience

This = More than likely the article itself—but clarity is a real problem.

Fix:

Replace “this” with the proper noun and complicated referent “Adichie’s use of anecdotes.

Replace “this” with the off the page referent “rhetorical strategy.”

Replace “this” with the referent “article” located in the first sentence of the passage

Remediated:

Adichie’s uses anecdotes in her article to convince her audience to be feminists. Adichie’s use of anecdotes is intended for both women and men. Her rhetorical strategy effectively targets her audience, as her article is clearly an introduction to feminism.

For more on sentence-level clarity issues try: “Struggling With Tenses? Consider Their Purpose” and “Relational Terms and Failures of Logical Reasoning: Positive and Negative Value Assignments.”

Also, if you find color coding an especially useful revision strategy see: “Disorganized first draft? Color-coding as a tool to reorganize and restructure,” “How much do I need to explain? Finding places to condense and expand,” “Evidentiary Disconnect—Thinking Through the Vacuum,”Do you have trouble balancing your amount of evidence and degree of analysis? Color-coding to find your evidence to analysis ratio,” and “Do Your Sentences All Sound the Same? Try Diversifying Sentence Structure and Length.”

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