Pronouns
From Grammar part of The ABC Of Plain Words by Sir E Gowers (1951)

"The use of pronouns", said Cobbett, "is to prevent the repetition of nouns, and to make speaking and writing more rapid and less encumbered with words".

In more than one respect they are difficult parts of speech to handle.

(i) It is an easy slip to use a pronoun without a true antecedent.

He offered to resign but it was refused.

Here it has not a true antecedent, as it would have had if the sentence had begun "he offered his resignation". This is a purely grammatical point, but unless care is taken over it a verbal absurdity may result. Cobbett gives this example from Addison:

There are indeed but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a relish of any pleasures that are not criminal; every diversion they take is at the expense of some one virtue or other, and their very first step out of business is into vice or folly.

As Cobbett points out, the only possible antecedent to they and their is the "very few who know how to be idle and innocent", and that is exactly the opposite of what Addison means.

(ii) Be sure that there is no real ambiguity about the antecedent. This is more than a grammatical point; it affects the intelligibility of what you write. Special care is needed when the pronouns are he and him, and more than one male person has been mentioned. Latin is sensible enough to have two pronouns for he and him, one of which is used only when referring to the subject of the sentence; but English affords no such aids.

Stevenson lamented this and said:

When I invent a language there shall be a direct and an indirect pronoun differently declined—then writing would be some fun.

DIRECTINDIRECT
HeTu
Him Turn
His Tus

Example: He seized tum by tus throat; but tu at the same time caught him by his hair. A fellow could write hurricanes with an inflection like that. Yet there would be difficulties too. ( Letter to E. L. Burlinghame, March 1892.)

Handicapped as we are by the lack of this useful artifice, we must be careful to leave no doubt about the antecedents of our pronouns, and must not make our readers guess, even though it may not be difficult to guess right. As Jespersen points out, a sentence like

"John told Robert's son that he must help him"

is theoretically capable of six different meanings. It is true that Jespersen would not have us trouble overmuch when there can be no real doubt about the antecedent, and he points out that there is little danger of misunderstanding the theoretically ambiguous sentence:

If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it.

Nevertheless, he adds, it is well to be very careful about one's pronouns.

Here are one or two examples, to show how difficult it is to avoid ambiguity:

Mr. S. told Mr. H. he was prepared to transfer part of his allocation to his purposes provided that he received £10,000.

The his before purposes refers, it would seem, to Mr. H. and the other three pronouns to Mr. S.

Mr. H. F. saw a man throw something from his pockets to the hens on his farm, and then twist the neck of one of them when they ran to him.

Here the change of antecedent from "the man" to Mr. H. F. and back again to "the man" is puzzling at first.

There are several possible ways of removing ambiguities such as these. Let us take by way of illustration the sentence, "Sir Henry Ponsonby informed Mr. Gladstone that the Queen had been much upset by what he had told her" and let us assume that the ambiguous he refers to Mr. Gladstone. We can make the antecedent plain by

1. Not using a pronoun at all, and writing "by what Mr. Gladstone had told her".

2. Parenthetic explanation — "by what he (Mr. Gladstone) had told her".

3. The former-latter device — "by what the latter had told her".

4. By rewriting the sentence — "The Queen was much upset by what Mr. Gladstone told her, and Sir Henry Ponsonby so informed him".

5. The device that Henry Sidgwick called "the polite alias" and Fowler "elegant variation", and writing (say) "by what the Prime Minister had told her", or the "G.O.M." or "the veteran statesman".

It may safely be said that the fifth device should seldom if ever be adopted , and the third only when the antecedent is very close. See Former and Latter.

(iii) Do not be shy of pronouns.

So far we have been concerned in this section with the dangers that beset the user of pronouns. But for the official no less a danger is that of not using them when he ought. Legal language, which must aim above all things at removing every possible ambiguity, is more sparing of pronouns than ordinary prose, because of an ever-present fear that the antecedent may be uncertain. For instance, opening at random an Act of Parliament, I read:

The Secretary of State may by any such regulations allow the required notice of any occurrence to which the regulations relate, instead of being sent forthwith, to be sent within the time limited by the regulations.

Anyone not writing legal language would have avoided repeating regulations twice; he would have put they in the first place and them in the second.

Officials have so much to read and explain that is written in legal English that they become infected with pronoun-avoidance. The result is that what they write is often, in Cobbett's phrase, "more encumbered with words" than it need be.

Arrangements are being made to continue the production of these houses for a further period, and increased numbers of these houses will, therefore, be available.

There is no reason why the second these houses should not have been them. (This is an example of encasing therefore in unnecessary and tiresome commas.) See also Such.

(iv) It is usually better not to allow a pronoun to precede its principal. If the pronoun comes first the reader may not know what it refers to until he arrives at the principal.

I regret that it is not practicable, in view of its size, to provide a list of the agents.

Here, it is true, the reader is only momentarily left guessing what its refers to. But he would have been spared even that if the sentence had been written:

I regret that it is not practicable to provide a list of the agents ; there are too many of them.

« Grammar » « Guide » « ABC of Plain Words » « Use Of English » « Library » « Home »