About that Indefinite Pronoun Reference…

A recent Instant Quiz sparked some useful comments that I want to talk about today. Here’s the controversial sentence:

When I fell for Jimmy, it seemed that my love for him would last forever.

If you’re a strict grammarian, it has to refer to the closest preceding noun. (If you were using formal grammatical terminology, you’d say that it needs an antecedent.)

In the Instant Quiz, the closest noun (antecedent) is Jimmy. Since it clearly doesn’t refer to Jimmy, a grammarian would say that it is an indefinite pronoun reference.

Or maybe a grammarian wouldn’t say that.

My friend Janis Koike noted that sometimes it doesn’t need an antecedent: It’s raining. It seems to be a bit cool in hereThe Cambridge Dictionary agrees with Janis (so do I, incidentally). This usage is called an “empty subject or object” or an “anticipatory it.” It’s perfectly grammatical.

Let’s push on. Another visitor to my blog offered this useful example:

Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. Did you know that?

A strict grammarian would probably circle that in red. But since there’s no confusion about what that means, does the sentence really contain an error? Of course not.

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So I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at this notion of an indefinite pronoun reference and trying to figure out what writers need to know about it.

Let’s begin with a sentence that clearly has a problem with pronoun reference:

While Sally was shopping with her mother, she selected a perfect dress for her to wear to Joe’s wedding.  INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

Who selected the dress, and who was going to wear it to the wedding? Not clear. My hunch is that Sally selected the dress for her mother, but there’s no way to be sure.

Here’s a rewrite that clears everything up:

During their shopping trip, Sally selected the perfect dress for her mother to wear to Joe’s wedding.  CORRECT

Now let’s look at a different issue with pronouns. Here’s a sentence fragment – and a question: What is it?

Although the Financial Committee approved the budget, it

The logical answer is…the budget. Here’s how the complete sentence might read:

Although the Financial Committee approved the budget, it didn’t win the Planning Board’s approval.

But it could have a different meaning if you finished the sentence this way:

 it looked like the Planning Board would ask for changes.

Now it is an “empty subject” – a perfectly respectable construction, as explained in the Cambridge Dictionary.

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But I wouldn’t use Version #2 of our sentence in a professional writing task.

Here’s why. When you read Version #2, your brain automatically decides that it refers to the budget. So there’s a millisecond of confusion when your eyes come to the next word, looked.

Although the Financial Committee approved the budget, it looked

Wait a minute! A budget can’t look.

Of course your brain quickly figures out what’s going on: “it looked like the Planning Board would ask for changes.”

That millisecond of confusion is nothing to be concerned about, right? It’s like a tiny burst of static when you’re listening to a radio broadcast – or a blip on a computer screen.

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But think about this. Isn’t it annoying to listen to a broadcast that really interests you – and then miss a couple of words because of that burst of static?

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Few things please me as much as hearing someone say that a piece I’ve written is easy to read. (I still remember with pleasure a compliment from one of the members of my dissertation committee: “Although the ideas in Mrs. Reynolds’ doctoral dissertation are very complex, her sentences are clear and readable.”)

Strangely enough, the words most likely to gum up a sentence are the easy ones we don’t worry about. I’d put and, it, and that at the top of my list, and you would probably be surprised if you saw how much time I spend trying to get those words to behave themselves. 

To my way of thinking, that effort is worth it. I know how annoyed I feel when I have to reread a sentence or paragraph to decipher its meaning. Do unto others is a sound ethical principle – and it works just as well for writers.

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2 thoughts on “About that Indefinite Pronoun Reference…

  1. Jenna

    Jean, I agree whole-heartedly with you about compliments on one’s writing. I recently received feedback an a review I wrote; the editor asked for revisions but said my “prose was clear and lovely.”

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