“Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?”… “Who, me?” … “Yes, you!”… “Couldn’t be!”… “Then who?”… etc.
Wondering why I used that to open the article? Just to try and catch your attention, that’s why. Today I want to share some thoughts on pronouns and how to learn and use them correctly. So, keep reading!
Say What You Thought You Said!
Normally when you use a pronoun, you need to ensure the pronoun refers to and agrees with an antecedent. Below, Hakim is the antecedent that is referred to as ‘He’ in the subsequent sentence and ‘it’ clearly refers to his apartment.
“Hakim has a tidy apartment. He cleans it often.”
If there are multiple pronouns used in a sentence, their meaning can quickly become ambiguous. In the following example, the object ‘her’ clearly refers to Zulma. But the two pronouns ‘it’ are ambiguous; referring either to the window or nightfall – or both, with neither ‘it’ clearly referencing either the window or the nightfall – or to neither of them in the case where ‘it’ refers to her experience as a whole.
“From the ornate window, Zulma relished seeing nightfall approach. It struck her as familiar since it had been enjoyed by her many times before.”
To avoid this, you can use the antecedent instead of the pronoun, use smaller sentences and/or reference an antecedent using its pronoun before introducing other antecedents.
Provide Concrete and Definite Meaning
This is a headache we do not have with indefinite pronouns. But that does not mean clarity is assured. To begin, consider these indefinite adjectives commonly used to describe quantity: no, some, any and every.
Every human wants to be happy. (all and each individually).
No human wants to suffer. (none.)
Any human suffering is unfortunate. (some quantitative extent but neither all nor none.)
Some human suffering is inevitable. (some quantitative extent but neither all nor none.)
Consider the meaning if we vary these sentences based on their logical combinations.
Every human wants to suffer.
No human wants to he happy.
We can unequivocally say these statements are false. So, usage of ‘Every’ and ‘No’ are relatively straightforward. But the implications of ‘Any’ and Some’ and not as easily recognized as are the implications of ‘Every’ and ‘No’.
Any human suffering is inevitable.
Some human suffering is unfortunate.
This is because ‘any’ implicitly contrasts with None. Whereas, ‘some’ implicitly contrasts with ‘every’, ‘each’ and ‘all’. The second phrase suggests that some human suffering is fortunate. Be careful.
Keep this in mind when adding the antecedent replacements stemming from nouns: ‘-body’, ‘-one’, ‘-thing’ and ‘-where’. Combining these with indefinite adjectives provides a powerful tool for conveying nuanced meaning. “No one is free to live everywhere.” (from Friedrich Nietzsche’s – Why Am I So Wise)
Finally, be sure to use a third-person singular verb construct when using indefinite pronouns.
Author: Eric Ferris (Chicago native, Miami resident)