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The Sixth Deadly Sin


6Pronoun Problems

Pronouns are useful as substitutes for nouns, but a poorly chosen pronoun can obscurethe meaning of a sentence. Common pronoun errors include:

Unclear Pronoun Reference

A pronoun must refer to a specific noun (the antecedent). Ambiguous pronoun referencecreates confusing sentences.

Example: A key difference between banking crises of today and of yesterdayis that they have greater global consequences.(Which crises have greater consequences, those of today or those of yesterday?)

If a whiff of ambiguity exists, use a noun: A key difference between bankingcrises of today and yesterday is that today’s crises have greater global impact.

Vague Subject Pronoun

Pronouns such as it, there, and this often make weak subjects. Use a pronoun as subjectonly when its antecedent is crystal clear.

Example: Pope Gregory VII forced Emperor Henry IV to wait three daysin the snow at Canossa before granting him an audience. It was a symbolic act. (To what does “it” refer? Forcing the emperor to wait? The waiting? The grantingof the audience? The audience? The entire sentence?)

Agreement Error

A pronoun must agree in gender and number with its antecedent. A common error is theuse of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular noun.

Example: In the original state constitution, they allowed polygamy. [They (plural) refers to constitution (singular).]

REVISED: The original state constitution allowed polygamy.

It is often better to use a plural noun and pronoun than to use a singular noun and pronoun. Note that indefinite pronouns such as each and everyone are singular.

Example: Each student must meet with their advisor. (incorrect: singular noun, plural pronoun)

Example: Each student must meet his or her advisor. (correct but awkward)

REVISED: Students must meet with their advisors. (correct: plural noun and pronoun)

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Developing the ability to communicate in a clear, organized and effective way is a central goal of a liberal arts education — and a prerequisite for a successful career. That’s why we established centers for writing and speaking.

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