6. Thou Shalt Not Use Personal Pronouns Unless the Meaning of the Sentence Is Clear
In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The sixth commandment of writing follows.
6. Thou Shalt Not Use Personal Pronouns Unless the Meaning of the Sentence Is Clear.
A personal pronoun is a word that refers to a person previously mentioned. For example, if you were writing an essay about singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, you could write the following: “Taylor Swift was born on December 13, 1989, in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, but Taylor Swift moved to Nashville, Tennessee, fourteen years later to follow Taylor Swift’s dream of becoming a country singer.”
Obviously, that sentence sounds silly because of the repetition of Swift’s full name. Thus, to avoid the repetition and to simplify the sentence, you can use personal pronouns such as “she” and “her”: “Taylor Swift was born on December 13, 1989, in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, but she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, fourteen years later to follow her dream of becoming a country singer.”
The previous sentence is still clear because only one person is involved in the sentence. As soon as you add a second person, however, the possibility for confusion exists. Consider this sentence: “Tommy’s dad said he couldn’t go to the party.”
At first glance, you might assume that Tommy can’t go to the party because dads are generally in the position of saying whether a child can go to a party or not. In this example, though, notice that the pronoun “he” is closer to the noun “dad” than it is to the noun “Tommy.” Thus, you have to assume that it’s Tommy’s dad who can’t go to the party for some reason. If it were Tommy who couldn’t attend, you should avoid using the pronoun “he” and write the following instead: “Tommy’s dad said Tommy couldn’t go to the party.”
Another pronoun problem occurs if you use the pronoun prior to using the noun that it refers to. The noun that precedes the pronoun is called an “antecedent,” and if your sentence does not have an antecedent, that sentence is not as clear as it should be.
For instance, consider the following sentence: “If you see her at the party, please tell Susie to call me.” In this case the pronoun “her” precedes the noun “Susie.” Thus, the reader or listener will be temporarily confused. Who is the person referred to as “her”? Sure, the reader or listener will know soon enough when “Susie” is mentioned specifically by name later in the sentence. However, that temporary confusion disappears if you use the noun before the pronoun: “If you see Susie at the party, please tell her to call me.”
Finally, make sure you always include a noun to go along with your pronoun(s). Here’s an example of a problem sentence: “They drive me crazy when they visit our house.” In this sentence, the writer has used the pronoun “they” twice, but neither one refers to a specific noun, so the reader or listener doesn’t know the identity of “They.” To correct that sentence, you could write “My in-laws drive me crazy when they visit our house.”
The original sentence is not too problematic when speaking because your listener could easily ask you, “Who drives you crazy?” However, if you use that same sentence in a written document, the reader will be lost or confused.
Thus, when using personal pronouns, you are always straddling a fine line between too few and too many. If you use too few pronouns, your sentences may sound wordy and redundant (like the original sentence about Taylor Swift above), but if you use too many, your writing may not be as clear and as precise as it should be.