Writing Tips

Sentence Structure

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Kluber's Head Rolls into Right Field

When and Whether to Use a Pronoun

For weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a way you could dazzle friends with clever comments about pronouns. At first I tried for something oblique and dismissive, but thought-provoking – like standing before a painting at Chicago’s Art Institute, thumb and forefinger caressing your chin, and muttering, “It’s so derivative.”

Then it hit me: a parlor game! Like “Charades” or “Jenga!” We’ll call it “Pronopoly!” Just throw out a pronoun and everyone tries to guess its gender, person, number, and case! (Who knew pronouns could have so many properties? Or be so complex?) Someone yells, “Her!” and the room erupts, “Feminine, third person, singular, objective!” You can imagine how quickly this could get out of hand. I’ve tried it in social settings, and the game gets so intense, people faint. I taught it to our WordRake engineers, and now they’re leading conga lines.

 

I thought again: Why not ratchet it up a notch? Let’s see who can come up with the Oscar Wildest play on words using misplaced pronouns, like:

 

Peter’s dog died when he was 42. (“An old dog,” Oscar would say.)

 

Or:

 

After Bryant lined the ball off Kluber's head, it rolled into right field. (“What happened to the ball,” Oscar would say.)

 

In my experience, such witticism in the parlor usually subsides into thoughtful reflection and leads to enlightened discussion on how pronouns help to curb formality and monotony, so we can communicate better and faster to avoid this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate Mr. Leiberman. The partners knew Mr. Leiberman was a member when the partners hired Mr. Leiberman, and the partners were committed to accommodating Mr. Leiberman’s Guard schedule.

 

by writing this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate him. They knew he was a member when they hired him, and they were committed to accommodating his Guard schedule.

 

The news of Peter’s 42-year-old dog might not be so serious in the middle-schooler’s neighborhood blog, but if one of us makes a similar mistake in professional life, it can confuse clients and colleagues who don’t know whom we mean by “they”; that's when we see time and money lost, and patience thinned. To wit:

 

Although supervisors do not receive these reports, they could help us explain the company’s position.

 

We have two antecedents out front, and they could refer to either. Who or what could help us explain: the supervisors or the reports? Our readers don’t know. Until someone does know, no one can act. Do we call the supervisors or gather the reports? Our client's clock is ticking, and we’ve just lost our kingdom for a pronoun.

 

Wow, who knew we could learn so much from a parlor game? And have so much fun? Wow again. When and where you play is up to you. I’m thinking a round or two between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. When the guy in the apron asks, "Would you like the pumpkin or the mincemeat?" yell, “You!” and stand back while the place explodes. “Generic! Second person! Singular and plur . . . .”

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

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