Indefinite Pronoun Reference

Here’s an obscure topic for you! Translated into everyday English, “indefinite pronoun reference” means a confusing pronoun (he, him, she, her, it, they, them, this, that, and similar words). Here’s an example:

Carl took his son to Home Depot to pick out a paint color for his room. INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

Whose room, Carl’s or his son’s? Because there are two males, that “his” is unclear, or indefinite. Here’s a more clear sentence:

Carl took his son John to Home Depot to pick out a paint color for John’s room.  BETTER

Professional writers are always on the lookout for vague pronoun use. It’s a habit that makes good writers stand out from the rest of the pack.

And I just did it incorrectly. Did you notice? If not, here’s a chance to make your writing a little sharper – and to make your own writing stand out.

The problem word is “it.” (I’ve often said that it’s the seemingly easy everyday words in our language that create the biggest problems for writers.)

I wrote “It’s a habit….” What exactly is the habit? Being on the lookout for vague pronoun use. But those exact words didn’t appear in the previous sentence.

Here’s a revision that eliminates the vague reference:

Professional writers are always on the lookout for vague pronoun use. The habit of using pronouns in a precise way makes good writers stand out from the rest of the pack. BETTER

That sentence might have struck you as a little too formal for everyday writing. I agree. In conversation and emails I don’t concern myself with indefinite pronoun references. If you’re writing something for work or for publication, though, it pays to check your pronouns and revise sentences when necessary. Your writing will be sharper, and that’s a good thing.

(Not really. Did you notice the indefinite pronoun reference? That is unclear. Here’s the revised sentence: Your writing will acquire greater precision, and that’s a good thing.)

UNCLEAR ok

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2 thoughts on “Indefinite Pronoun Reference

  1. ballroomdancer Post author

    Thank you, John! I agree. I notice that those pronouns often cause confusion when my husband and I go about our everyday business: “It” and “that” can have endless meanings.

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