Clear or Unclear Pronoun Usage (Especially when writing.)

WRITTEN January 22, 2015 Author: Rich Atkins

We all use them!  

(Pronouns, that is.)

They are a way to shorten a sentence yet still get the point across.

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.


How do you think your pronoun usage is these days?

Examples of confusing pronoun usage:

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

Clear: Michael’s manager said that Michael will attend the meeting.


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

Clear: The client voiced some concerns about cost again.


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

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?]

Clear: The copier repairman told me how to fix the copier. He told me that the toner was empty.


Pronoun Reference Shift

Be careful of shifting reference when using pronouns.

Here are three examples of Pronoun Reference Shift:

A contestant on a television show was telling his medical story, saying, “The doctors found out that I have a virus that shuts down all of your organs.” [It must be a POWERFUL virus if it can shut down someone else’s organs!]

CEOs discovered that you don’t need special equipment for the job. [Did THEY discover what YOU do/don’t need?]

When we worked with her, we found out that you could ask her anything. [Did WE find out what YOU could ask her?]


Bottom line, be careful and proofread. It is easy to skip over matching pronouns when speaking, but written communications will always require a greater level of accuracy. 

This information is from our Business Writing and Grammar and Usage classes. If you’re looking for ways to improve your communication skills, register for one of our public classes.

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