August 17, 2006
Liz published this at 10:36 am
Give Me Pronouns to Tick You Off
Anyone who has been in any important relationship knows that most arguments aren’t about money, broken promises, or misbehavior. They are about words. Words cause misunderstandings and broken contracts. In the end, what arguments are usually about is that what was said and what was received didn’t match up.
Certain words make this happen particularly often, nicely said they are unclear referents. Evil pronouns is what I call them.
Let me show you how they cause arguments, er misunderstandings. Evil pronouns in question below are in bold.
IT Husband: So Larry, and the dog, and I went out jogging. He got tired and was a pain to deal with for the rest of the afternoon.
IT Husband: Who? What?
ME: Who got tired and was cranky?
IT Husband: You know who I mean.
ME: No, I don’t. Was it Larry or the dog?
IT Husband: You weren’t listening. Were you?
[technically he in the original sentence would refer to the dog]
Need another example?
ME: Marcy said, “All married women are single parents.” I thought it was funny. What do you think about that? Do you think it is offensive?
IT Husband: I don’t find it offensive that you thought it was funny.
ME: That’s not what I was asking.
IT Husband: Yes it was.
ME: No, I used an unclear referrent. What I meant to ask was whether you thought what Marcy said was offensive.
IT Husband: But that’s not what you asked.
ME: You’re right, but it’s what I want to know. . . .
[technically that and it in the original sentence refer to what I thought]
Want one more?
IT Husband: We need to write a letter to the phone company.
IT Husband: Yeah. Us.
ME: You really mean me. Don’t you?
IT Husband: Well, you are the writer in the house. Are you refusing?
ME: No, I just wanted to be clear who’s really doing the work. . . .
Enough said about conversation.
How to Control Those Pronouns
You can control those evil pronouns in conversation and even more when you write. Here are two tricks to keep them in line.
Use nouns often. Of course, you won’t keep repeating the same noun over and over as if you are reciting or writing a book for 5 year olds. Know that most readers appreciate the repetitive clarity more than having to go back several lines to figure who “he” is.
Know that pronouns refer to the noun that is closest before it. So in this sentence, I came with both Ben and Jerry, but I spent all of my time with him. the pronoun him would refer to Jerry.
Of course, you can’t rely on other folks to follow that. So when you speak or write, include clues that keep the identify of your pronouns obvious. Listen for responses that might show that your conversation partner has misunderstood you. Look in your writing for opportunities to add details that make the identity of your pronouns unmistakable.
Do those things and you’ll not only communicate more clearly, but . . . you might even find that you argue less frequently. Okay about new topics then.
I’m sure you’ve been undermined at least once by evil pronouns. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about them.
–Me “Liz” Strauss
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