A Word, Please: The troubling use of pronouns

Randy in Orange County, Calif., wrote recently to ask about the following passage, which he came across in a newspaper article: “Pat Haden didn’t fire Kiffin. He fired himself.”

Randy found this troubling. “What does this technically mean? Who fired himself? Who is out of a job? Haden or Kiffin?”

In fact, Randy knew the answers to these questions before he read the article. But the passage raised some larger issues and could even suggest an unfortunate trend.

“It seems that more and more I’m running into troubling sentences and their pronoun usage,” Randy wrote. “I see a lot of sentences where it seems the writer simply relies on me to intuit who or what the pronouns refer to by the context of the sentence. In other words, I should ‘know what the writer means’ – pay no attention to what the sentence really says.”

Did you hear it? A squeaking noise? That was my soapbox skidding across the floor as Randy was placing it at my feet. Now I’ll hoist myself up here, take a deep breath and bellow a refrain all too familiar to people who know me. Here it is. Writers and editors: You work for the reader. The reader doesn’t work for you. It’s not the reader’s job to figure out what you were trying to say. It’s your job to know how to say it. Effectively and efficiently.

This is the same soapbox I get on when I rant against semicolons. Too often, semicolons serve no purpose other than to show off – at the reader’s expense – that the writer knows how to use semicolons. They create long, cumbersome, hard-to-digest sentences that would have been more palatable had the writer never heard of a semicolon.

This is the same soapbox I get on to talk about initials inserted in parentheses, as in: “The National Association of Auto Mechanics and Body Repairers (NAAMBR) and the Consortium of Car Salespeople and Leasing Professionals (CCSLP) worked with members of the Improved Automotive Business Bureau (IABB) and the Bay Area Regional Dealers and Detailers Committee (BARDDC).” See all those letters crammed between parentheses? They’re the writer’s way to telling the reader: “As you trudge through this speed-bump-ridden sentence, you must memorize all these initials because some may come up later in the article, even though others won’t, and I refuse to find a more reader-friendly way to recall to you these organizations.”

Randy’s sentence has the same problem at its heart. It’s evidence that the writer lost sight of who he was working for. But in this case, the problem has a name. It’s called an unclear antecedent.

An antecedent is a noun to which a pronoun refers. In “Mike started to run across the street but he fell,” we know that the pronoun “he” refers to Mike. So in this sentence, Mike is the antecedent.

But in “Mike and Bob started to run across the street but he fell,” “he” could refer to Mike or Bob. We just don’t know. So the pronoun has an unclear antecedent.

You could argue that our Haden/Kiffin sentence isn’t as troubling as our Mike/Bob sentence because the meaning is clearer. A lot of readers, Randy included, had enough contextual information to know who got fired. But to me, that’s not good enough. The writer had an opportunity to ensure that no reader would be left out. He just had to change “He fired himself” to “Kiffin fired himself.” And when there’s an easy, smooth way to make a sentence clear to every reader, the writer should take it.

Lecture over.

Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at