Clear or Confusing Writing

WRITTEN December 4, 2014 Author: Rich Atkins

CHALLENGE – Choose the correct pronoun:

“Someone left (her/his or their) laptop in the Board Room.”

It’s easy to make an error with pronoun agreement. In the Challenge above, most people are tempted to choose “their” (it sounds nonsexist to say it that way, but it’s grammatically incorrect). “Someone” (literally, “some single one”) is not a “they.”

The word “someone” is singular, and always needs to be referred to with other singular words, like “s/he.” One way to get around this problem is to avoid the pronoun use altogether: “Someone left a laptop in the Board Room.” Of course, the best way to avoid problems is to know what’s correct and to use it correctly.



Clear Pronoun Usage

Pronouns refer to other words (called “antecedents”). The “other word” needs to be very clear to the audience before you can use a pronoun to refer to it.

Confusing: Michael’s manager said that he will attend the meeting. [Who will attend, Michael, or his manager?]

Confusing: I spoke to the client and shipping provider. They don’t know if it will work. She voiced some concerns about cost again.

Confusing: The new report indicates a serious problem, but it is unclear. [Is the report unclear or is the problem unclear?]

Clear: The new report indicates a serious problem, but the report is not clear about the problem.

Confusing: This man told me how to fix the copier. [Who is this man?]

Clear: The copier repair person told me how to fix the copier. This man told me that the toner was empty.

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