Using Pronouns Clearly and Effectively
It is difficult to imagine writing scholarly prose in the English language without using pronouns. Were academic and scientific authors forced to use nouns repeatedly instead of substituting pronouns at times, their books and articles would quickly become unwieldy and very likely unpleasant to read. In many cases the use of pronouns is straightforward, but since a pronoun refers to or replaces a specific noun, it is essential to use the correct pronoun in an accurate way so that there will be no confusion and readers will know to which noun each pronoun refers. It is therefore essential that every pronoun you use in your writing refers clearly to the specific noun it replaces and agrees in number and person with that noun.
Agreement in number means that a pronoun that aims to replace a singular noun must itself be singular, and a pronoun that replaces a plural noun must be plural. For example, ‘When Dr John Smith prepares an article for publication in a top-tier journal, he proofreads the manuscript very carefully’ demonstrates the correct use of the singular pronoun ‘he,’ which here refers to the singular noun ‘Dr John Smith.’ The pronoun is masculine because the noun it replaces is masculine; were it a Dr Jane Smith doing the proofreading, the correct pronoun would be the singular ‘she.’ If the gender of the noun is unspecified, both ‘he’ and ‘she’ are required to avoid gender bias or the appearance thereof: ‘When a successful scholar prepares an article for publication in a top-tier journal, he or she proofreads the manuscript very carefully.’ Although there is a current trend to use ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’ in such situations, ‘they’ is plural, so it is incorrect as a pronoun to replace a singular noun. Its function is to replace a plural noun: ‘When successful scholars prepare articles for publication in top-tier journals, they proofread the manuscripts very carefully.’ Although terms such as ‘anyone,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘someone’ and ‘each’ may be obviously singular, keep in mind that ‘everybody,’ which expresses a plural concept, is grammatically singular as well, so it requires a singular pronoun: ‘Everybody brought his or her favourite dish.’
Agreement in person refers to maintaining the grammatical voice or perspective, whether first person, second person or third person, from which you are writing. If you initially use a noun in the third person, for instance, you should maintain the third-person voice when referring to that noun via a pronoun. ‘When a successful scholar prepares an article for publication in a top-tier journal, he or she proofreads the manuscript very carefully’ correctly maintains the third-person voice, but ‘When a successful scholar prepares an article for publication in a top-tier journal, you proofread the manuscript very carefully’ does not. It switches from the third person to the second person (you) and is therefore incorrect. In less formal writing where the reader may be addressed directly this sort of shift is far from uncommon, but it is inappropriate in scholarly writing, as are similarly abrupt shifts from the first-person and second-person voices.
Finally, referring to a specific noun with clarity is always required in formal scholarly prose because anything less can result in confusion and misunderstanding for readers, especially when the task is to report complex research and sophisticated ideas. For example, ‘Although the car hit the house, it was not damaged’ is an ambiguous statement because it is unclear whether ‘it’ refers to the ‘car’ or the ‘house.’ One might assume that ‘it’ replaces ‘car’ because the car is the subject of the first part of the sentence and should, in the best of prose, therefore be the subject of the second part as well, but it is preferable to remove all ambiguity in such cases by repeating the relevant noun. ‘Although the car hit the house, the house was not damaged’ resolves the potential problem.
Ambiguity can also result when a pronoun might refer to either a noun or a larger concept in the preceding statement. For instance, ‘When the house is finished it will be nice’ is vague because is it unclear exactly what the singular neuter pronoun ‘it’ is intended to replace – the ‘house’ or the fact that it is finished? ‘When the house is finished it will make a lovely home’ clarifies the meaning. Keep in mind when you are refining your use of pronouns that it can be notoriously difficult to determine when vague communication may be present in your own writing because you already know what it is you are trying to say. Recruiting the proofreading services of a mentor, colleague or professional editor will prove invaluable in this regard.
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