this, they, it, those, these – a revision strategy

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One of my pet peeves is reading sentences which contain an ambiguous pronoun.  The pronoun stands alone, isolated. The lonely goatherd on the hilltop. Sentences that start with, or contain, an unattached this, they, it, those, these seem to expect the reader to just know what the this, they, it, those, and these refer to.

In reality, the singleton pronoun is screaming for some company. Without a noun, what we call the referent – the thing that the this, they, it, those and these refer to – the reader just has to guess what the writer means. The reader has to set up a bit of blind dating to get to the point.

Let me give you an example to clarify what I mean. Sometimes the lonely little pronoun this, they, it, those, these has to do the work of starting off a new sentence. As here:

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This is why it is often hard.

But this what? Doctoral writing? Text work and identity work, patience, persistence or creativity? Some of the above? All of above? Or is it the combination that is important? In which case write:

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits often make it hard for new PhDers.

But hang on, what is it in the new second sentence? Here the solitary pronoun comes in the middle of a sentence, perhaps, as in this case, attempting to set the scene for the sentence or the paragraph to follow.

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits means that new PhDers can have difficulty settling into their new programme. Because of this, supervisors and graduate schools need to provide a range of formal and informal support.

Oh dear, here we go again. What is this in Because of this? Does the writer mean supervisors need to attend to all of the issues listed or to the tricky combination, or both?

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits means that new PhDers can have difficulty settling into their new programme. Because new PhDers may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new tasks and expectations, supervisors and graduate schools need to provide them with a range of formal and informal support.

Not fantastic writing I agree, but as it’s a draft, I get another chance to finesse the syntax.

But hang on a minute. What I’ve actually been forced to do, by getting rid of the ambiguous pronouns, is to get much more specific about what I actually mean. I had to specify what I meant by this, it and this (again). Having to sort out what the pronouns referred to compelled me to clarify that I was concerned about the combination and volume of simultaneous demands made of new PhDs. If I had stuck with the indeterminate pronouns, the reader would have had much less idea of what I was trying to say.

Using ambiguous pronouns is actually kinda sloppy. But sloppiness occurs for different reasons. Readers can interpret a writer’s use of vague pronouns as a lack of care. A reader might assume that if we don’t really spell out what we mean, and we just gesture towards something, that we assume the reader can figure it out for themselves. Not really what we want to communicate. But let’s assume that you are not cavalier about the reader and you really do want them to follow what you say. So think of the ambiguous this, they, it, those, these as a first step towards getting clear.

Writers very often use vague pronouns when they/we are speed writing and/or producing a first draft. The pronouns are a kind of shorthand for the-thought-we-don’t-have-time-to-develop. We are so focused on the big idea we can’t stop to build the finer details of our case. Locating this, they, it, those, these then becomes  important in working further on the text. Looking for the this, they, it, those, these which don’t refer to anything is one of the tasks needed in revision.

If you revise with a printout and a highlighter, then go through your draft text and mark every pronoun without a referent. Ask yourself what is the this, they, it, those, these I am referring to. Chances are you will find yourself not simply doing a proofing task where you correct grammar. Instead, you’ll be involved in refining your thinking – and you’ll be making your argument much more concise.

Watching out for this, they, it, those, these, an apparently small task, can do big work for making your writing clearer, better evidenced and thus more persuasive.

 

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, grammar, revision, revision strategy, syntax, thesis revision, vagueness and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to this, they, it, those, these – a revision strategy

  1. Jinny McGrath says:

    Thanks for this blog article. As a new higher degree student, I realise I have been guilty of using ambiguous pronouns.

    Like

  2. sarika kewalramani says:

    Could you pls some strategies how to avoid – this, these, them….?

    Like

    • pat thomson says:

      Write the pronoun then add the referent. Then look to see wether this is the best way to say what you mean. And nit to worry because you can to do this in revision even if you don’t catch it first time round.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rahaman Mohammed says:

    Thank you, very timely post as I’m starting to write the first draft of my introduction.

    Like

  4. HM YIMAM says:

    I found this article very important. Thank you very much!

    Like

  5. sylviahammond4gmailcom says:

    Once again – incredibly practical, easy to understand, and immediately one has an additional tool to adopt in proof-reading. Magic. Thank you.

    Like

  6. I tell my student never to use “this”, “that”, “those”, and “these” as pronouns, but to use them only as demonstrative adjectives. This approach gives them something concrete to check and provides a simple fix. Of course, if they can’t figure out what noun to use, then neither can the reader and there is a more fundamental problem of vagueness.

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  7. aspiringjuggler says:

    oooof – my supervisor, best co-writer and good friend has just pointed out this (which, which??) nasty habit. You are both right, of course, and noticing it (what, now?) makes you that (that one’s ok!) much more disciplined (I’ve sent her it – the article, of course…). Keep these posts coming please – they brighten up my working day no end!

    Like

  8. Jane S says:

    Ambiguous pronouns – ah, yes. They wake up a one-time English grad student!
    One of my personal bugbears is the (ab)use of the indefinite pronoun, but current parlance brings out a stuffy inner pedant. I was an irritating mother, always correcting such as “I want one of them.” (“No, darling, that should be ‘I want one of those.’ ‘This’ and ‘those’ apply to things; ‘they’ and ‘them’ are for people!”)
    2020’s junior probably ripostes with, “You know what I mean, like, so it’s okay, innit”?

    Academic English grammar and syntax do tend to be better than the vernacular. However, even the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary allows that our language is not unalterable, which is why the dictionary’s contents differ in successive editions.

    “The question is … whether you can make words mean so many different things,” as Alice said to Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ My current *bête noire* is ‘impact.’ It’s a noun, or a transitive verb: ‘an impacted tooth,’ wedged ‘in,’ or ‘into,’ (according to the OED). But the media is persisting with ‘impacting’ and other variations, in the sense of affecting. Thus, ‘impact’ is now an effect: “How did that impact you?”
    Along with confusing ‘that’ and ‘which,’ or (horror!) employing ‘infer’ for ‘imply,’ the floating apostrophe, the split infinitive and other misapplications, no doubt this new ‘impact’ is destined for acceptance.
    I’ll go hide in my ancient dog-eared Penguin copy of Partridge’s ‘Usage & Abusage’ now. 😉

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