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Pronoun Reference

How's That Again?

Read the following passage and summarize what it says. Warning: No fair scratching your head as you try to figure the passage out.

  • 1945: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin take another meeting, this time at Yalta, an old czarist summer resort on the Black Sea. Victory over Germany and Japan is in sight, but how are the Allied Powers to deal with it? Likewise, with them? Roosevelt miscalculates, choosing to trust him too much, listen to him—a past master of keep-your-distance diplomacy—too little. Russia not only gets most of Eastern Europe, but also walks away with parts of it, too.

What's wrong with this passage? The pronoun references are unclear. As a result, you don't know who's doing what to whom and where … much less why. Here are the places where you were likely confused:

  • 1945: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin take another meeting, this time at Yalta, an old czarist summer resort on the Black Sea. Victory over Germany and Japan is in sight, but how are the Allied Powers to deal with it? (What's the “it”—victory or the defeated?) Likewise, with them? (Who's the “them”—the victors, the defeated, or each other?) Roosevelt miscalculates, choosing to trust him (Whom?—Churchill or Stalin?) too much, listen to him (Whom?—Churchill or Stalin?)—a past master of keep-your-distance diplomacy—too little. Russia not only gets most of Eastern Europe, but also walks away with parts of it (What's the it?—another country?), too.

Carelessly placed pronouns can create unintentionally funny sentences as well as confusing ones. Consider the difference between what the writer thinks he or she said and what is really being said in each of these sentences:

  • Antinuclear protesters released live cockroaches inside the White House Tuesday, and these were arrested when they left and blocked the security gate. (That's what happens when you nuke a roach.)
  • My mother wants to have the dog's tail operated on again, and if it doesn't heal this time, she'll have to be put away. (Are we sending Mom or the pooch to the happy hunting ground?)
  • About a year ago, a wart appeared on my right foot, and I want it removed. (Is that before or after you take “it” out of your mouth?)
  • Guilt, bitterness, and cruelty can be emotionally destructive to you and your family. You must get rid of them. (Who? Guilt and bitterness, or the family?)
Quoth the Maven

Your writing will be confusing if your pronoun reference is unclear.

There are three ways to prevent this kind of confusion with pronouns:

  • Make a pronoun clearly refer to a single antecedent.
  • Place pronouns close to their antecedents.
  • Make a pronoun refer to a definite antecedent.

Let's look at each guideline in detail.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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