Tag Archives: Indefinite pronoun reference

If and When

I always look forward to opening my mailbox and finding the latest copy of The New Yorker magazine there. The articles and reviews are fun to read, and an additional bonus is the meticulous care that the writers and editors bring to their work.

For example, I always look for the dieresis in coöperate. Hardly anyone else still uses it (I confess that I dropped the dieresis decades ago), but I always get this warm feeling: Someone cares! (For the record, I’m one of very few people who still use an apostrophe in Hallowe’en.)

So it was a shock to come across this sentence in the September 20 issue (“The Face of Facebook”):

If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires.

“If” includes “when.” The sentence should read, “If Facebook decides to go public….”

Maybe we should all take heart: Even the meticulous New Yorker is capable of a lapse now and then. It’s ok to be human (especially if you’re still using those beautiful umlauts!).

[P.S. I chose a risky construction for this sentence: Im one of very few people who still use an apostrophe in Hallowe’en.

Many people would make it “still uses.” My reasoning is that I’ve put together two sentences that read like this:

I’m one of very few people. Those people still use an apostrophe in Hallowe’en.

You can read more about this debate by clicking here and reading Rule 6.]


Possessive with a Gerundive

When I wrote about the “use a possessive with a gerundive” rule on July 29, I assumed it would be quite a while before I came across the rule in a real-world sentence.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find this example (people’s using) in a recent New Yorker article : “Huckabee wouldn’t mind being characterized as a Christian intellectual, but he is vigilant against people’s using his background as a pastor to characterize him as a ‘redneck from southwest Arkansas,’ as Nelson put it.” (“Prodigal Son” by Ariel Levy, 6/28/10; click here to read the article.)

Let’s all give author Ariel Levy a round of applause!

But I also have a bone to pick with him. Who was the “Nelson” who made that statement? I couldn’t remember and had to backtrack through the article to find the answer. It turns out that two pages (or 2,976 words) earlier, Rex Nelson was identified as Governor Mike Huckabee’s policy and communications director.

Bad writing. Your job as an author is to provide everything the reader needs to move smoothly through whatever you’ve written. There should be no backtracking and no interruptions to look up a word at www.Dictionary.com or to Google confusing information.

Postmodern theorists are correct when they say that reading is a collaborative effort between author and audience. But that doesn’t give authors permission to slack off. What it does mean is that authors constantly need to consider their readers’ experience, knowledge, and thinking processes. You can’t insult your readers (identifying Shakespeare as “a great Elizabethan playwright,” for example), but you also have to avoid obscurity and confusion (referring to “Bertie,” say, without explaining that his formal name was King George VI).

I began this column by harking back to one I’d previously written about the possessive-with-a-gerundive construction. Now I’m going to hark back to July 31, when I wrote about indefinite pronoun references. Did you find one in the previous paragraph? No? Here it is: But that doesn’t give authors permission to slack off.

“That” is indefinite because it doesn’t refer to anything specific in the previous sentence. If someone pinned me against a wall and insisted on knowing what “that” stood for, my answer would be “The fact that reading is a collaborative effort between author and audience.” But those exact words don’t appear anywhere, for a good reason: I intensely dislike “the fact that” and don’t use that phrase unless it’s absolutely necessary.

So let’s summarize what’s passed between you (the reader) and me (the writer) in today’s entry:

  • People in the real world use the possessive-with-a-gerundive construction. At least Ariel Levy does. Or his editor at the New Yorker.
  • Writing should flow with no backtracking and no side trips to www.Dictionary.com or Google.
  • Real-world writers sometimes run red lights, so to speak, to avoid clumsy constructions, as I did when I deliberately chose an indefinite pronoun reference.

And that’s enough for one day!

red light ok


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.)