Indefinite Pronouns

I’ve often said that the words most likely to cause problems are the little, everyday ones. Today we’re going to take a close look at the pronouns it, this, that, these, and those (often called “indefinite pronouns”).

Here’s a paragraph containing several sentences with problems. See if you can figure out what’s wrong.

Davis told me about his argument with Carol. She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. It did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying. She refused to talk any further and left the room. That enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall.

The problem words are “it” and “that.” These are fine words that good writers use all the time…but carefully and thoughtfully.

Let’s look at it first:

She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. It did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying.

“It” didn’t make sense to him. What was “it”? Was it coming home late or saying her boss had given her a last-minute job to do?

Here’s a more precise version:

She came home late from work and said her boss had given her a last-minute job to do. Her explanation did not make sense to him, and he accused her of lying. BETTER

Now let’s look at that:

She refused to talk any further and left the room. That enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall.

What enraged him – her refusal to talk, or seeing her leave the room?

Here’s a better version:

She refused to talk any further and left the room. Her silence enraged him, and he grabbed a lamp and threw it against the wall. BETTER

Incidentally, the technical name for this problem is indefinite pronoun reference. But there’s no need to remember that terminology as long as you resolve to be precise with pronouns. (Hmmm…precise with pronouns. There’s a nice ring to it…or, more precisely, that phrase has a nice ring to it!)

Takeaways for You

Why should you bother with this pronoun issue? Two reasons. If you’re writing an account of something that happened, you need to be precise. There’s a big difference between “it enraged her” and “his angry words enraged her.”

Second, you might be hoping to climb the career ladder – and promotions always involve more and more writing. Now is the time to learn as much as you can about professional writing (today’s pronoun issue, for example!). When that wonderful new position opens up, you’ll be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

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