Unclear Pronoun Reference

I spent today at Barnes and Noble grading student essays, and by far the most common usage issue I noticed was unclear pronoun reference. I plan to do a minilesson on unclear pronoun reference when I hand back the papers. If your students have the same issue, you might find this lesson helpful.

First, students tend to have trouble with indefinite pronouns. If they use “someone” or “everybody,” they will often replace these indefinite pronouns with “their” later in the sentence. For example, “Someone forgot their pencil.” In spoken usage, it sounds OK to us because we use “their” to replace antecedents with an unknown gender. The person who left his/her pencil might be male or female, so to avoid saying the incorrect gender, we often say the incorrect number. Unfortunately, English has no gender-neutral pronoun we can use in these situations. We should say “Someone forgot his or her pencil,” even though it sounds formal, clunky, and awkward. I always suggest to students that they figure out a way to make the antecedent plural. It might not work in my previous example, but “Everyone forgot his or her lunch today” could easily become “All of them forgot their lunch today.”

Another more common issue in my set of papers was the unclear use of “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” to refer to an antecedent in a previous clause or sentence. Here’s an example: “Today girls are using abortions as a form of contraception, and this has become a lot more common.” Does the word this refer to abortions, contraception, or the use of abortions as contraception? It’s unclear. This sentence could be revised” “Today girls are more commonly using abortions as a form of contraception.” Of course, that’s provided the writer meant the third possible meaning of this. I’m sure the sentence could be tweaked even more to be even better, but at least in the correction, no unclear pronoun reference clouds the reader’s understanding. I tell students to avoid using words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” alone instead of near a noun. “This problem” or “that character” are more specific that simply “this” or “that,” and I have found that students are often trying to use these words when unclear pronoun reference troubles arise. Students simply put the demonstrative pronouns too far away from the antecedents those words are replacing.

I can demonstrate correcting this usage problem using the example above in about five minutes, and it might help some of my students avoid unclear pronoun reference issues. Feel free to use and adapt this lesson as you see fit.

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