|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2008
Remember Saturday morning "Grammar Rock"? Between our favorite cartoons, slurping up sugary cereal, we learned about pronouns and Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla. In case you ate too much cereal to remember the lesson, or you are too young to have enjoyed "Grammar Rock," let’s quickly review pronouns before we attack the problems they can cause.
Pronouns replace nouns (and sometimes other pronouns) to keep our writing from getting boring and repetitive. The judge told the lawyer to file the lawyer’s amended complaint within five days of the judge’s ruling. Once we know that the judge and the lawyer are actors in the sentence, we don’t need to repeat those nouns. Instead, we write the following: The judge told the lawyer to file her amended complaint within five days of his ruling.
Flashback: "Grammar Rock" told us that "saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down." That was especially true when the noun wasn’t "judge" but good old Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla. Consider this sentence: Judge Sarsaparilla told the lawyer to file the lawyer’s amended complaint within five days of Judge Sarsaparilla’s ruling.
The noun that the pronoun replaces is called the antecedent — because it almost always comes before the pronoun. The location of the noun before the pronoun means that the reader knows what’s involved in the sentence and can make the mental correlation between noun and pronoun.
One pronoun problem occurs when the reader can’t make a logical correlation between antecedent and pronoun. That happens when the antecedent is missing or is vague.
Missing antecedent: Before agreeing to the settlement, he wanted to read it once again.
Who is "he"? The uncertain reader will wander back through the preceding sentences looking for a noun that could be the antecedent for "he." If the reader has to wander back too far, the writer will lose the reader’s attention.
Vague antecedent: Jack thought the settlement was too lenient on some issues; James thought it was too strict on most. Before agreeing to the settlement, he wanted to read it once again.
The reader still has the question: Who is "he"? If the reader could confuse several possible antecedents, consider including the correct antecedent in the same sentence.
Clear antecedent: Before Jack agreed to the settlement, he wanted to read it once again.
Even if the antecedent is close to the pronoun, the reader will be confused if the writer uses the wrong pronoun. Most mistakes these days are made when plural pronouns barge into sentences with singular antecedents.
Incorrect: The association is billing their members in July rather than in December.
Who is "their"? The only noun in the sentence is the association. While it is made up of many members, it is one association.
Correct: The association is billing its members in July rather than in December.
The greatest confusion occurs when the sentence has two possible antecedents, one of which matches the pronoun grammatically but produces a nonsensical sentence.
Incorrect: The construction company failed to erect fences, meaning they did not exercise reasonable care.
The antecedent of "they" is "fences." But does the writer mean that the fences did not exercise reasonable care? Of course not.
Correct: The construction company failed to erect fences, meaning it failed to exercise reasonable care.
The same problem appears in the following example, but the solution is more complicated.
Incorrect: A landowner should know that children are likely to trespass on their land when it contains a visible swimming pool.
Technically, the children are trespassing on the children’s land. Is it possible to trespass on your own land? One solution is to replace "their" with a singular pronoun, but the choices are "she" or "he" or "it," which could raise gender issues. Making "landowner" plural fixes the antecedent-pronoun problem, but does little to clarify the meaning of the sentence. The best solution may be to delete the pronoun.
Correct: A landowner should know that children are likely to trespass on land that contains a visible swimming pool.
Ambiguity is raised to new heights with the demonstrative pronouns this and that. They work effectively when they precede nouns, as in this book and that argument. Difficulties arise when we decide the mere pronoun can do the work of a pronoun-noun pair.
Example: This means that the claim will fail.
This what means the claim will fail? The last thought of the preceding sentence? The argument that has been building for three pages? Bring back the noun to promote clarity.
Correct: This absence of proof means that the claim will fail.
Pronouns that replace people are called personal pronouns. The problem with English is that it doesn’t have just one set. Nominative pronouns serve as the subjects of verbs. These pronouns are I, you, she, he, it, we, they. Objective pronouns serve as the objects of verbs or the objects of prepositions. The objective personal pronouns are me, you, her, him, it, us, them. (Quick aside: Prepositions are tiny words like to, at, in, on, of, from. The object is the noun or pronoun that the preposition refers to, as in at the court, in the document and on the table.)
The easy ones are you and it, which are the same whether they are the subject or the object. The rest are tougher, especially when combined. In the following example, two objective pronouns are masquerading as the subjects of the sentence.
Incorrect: Her and me are going to the law library.
Doesn’t that make your ears hurt? Fortunately, you don’t have to remember the difference between nominative and objective pronouns to correct this sentence. Just see whether the two individual pronouns sound good standing alone. Not many of us would say Her is going to the law library. Or Me is going to the law library. So why stick them together? (Two wrongs don’t make a right, right?) Instead, we’d say She is going to the law library. And I am going to the law library. Use those same pronouns when you combine them as the subject of the following sentence.
Correct: She and I are going to the law library.
A similar mistake takes place when we shove nominative pronouns into objective work. In the next set of examples, the pronouns are the object of the verb asked.
Incorrect: The judge asked he and I several questions.
Correct: The judge asked him and me several questions.
In the following example set, objective pronouns are needed as objects of the preposition between. Here, you do need to remember the rule because neither between I or between me makes much sense.
Incorrect: Just between you and I, this case has no chance.
Correct: Just between you and me, this case has no chance.
In a gentler time, we all knew to put others before ourselves. That sense of chivalry may not have survived into the 21st century, but I’ll make a plea for it nonetheless.
Incorrect: I and my partners invite you to join us.
Correct: My partners and I invite you to join us.
Some writers try to be polite by using the fancy pronoun myself when a basic pronoun would work just fine. Surely you’ve heard the following:
Incorrect: Please return the completed form to Karen or myself.
Incorrect: My friend Robert and myself have written a very persuasive brief.
You wouldn’t use myself alone in these instances ("myself has written a brief?), or you shouldn’t. So don’t fancy things up when you have a friend or colleague involved.
Correct: Please return the completed form to Karen or me.
Correct: My friend Robert and I have written a very persuasive brief.
Those fancy words are actually helpful in providing emphasis. If it’s really important who will (or won’t) do something, the intensive form is perfect.
Correct: The partner himself will argue the case before the Supreme Court.
Correct: I myself have never missed a court filing deadline.
Don’t bring Mr. Sarsaparilla along in every sentence, but make sure you replace him with the correct pronoun. Now could you pass me some Lucky Charms before "Underdog" comes on?
Sources: Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (15th ed. 2003).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful to Amy Nuetzman of Oregon’s Academic Learning Services for comments on this article.
© 2008 Suzanne E. Rowe