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Pronoun Vagueness

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Pronoun Vagueness

gender-symbolsCompared to verbs in other languages, English verbs tell the reader relatively little about whom or what is performing an action. English verbs can express number (singular or plural) but not gender (masculine or feminine). This means that a subject pronoun cannot be omitted from a sentence because the verb itself cannot “imply” the correct pronoun. It also means that the antecedent of a pronoun must always be clear from the structure of a sentence.

When the antecedent-pronoun relationship is unclear, confusingly vague sentences result. For this English grammar lesson, we’re going to look at a couple of examples of pronoun vagueness and how to clarify the relationships between pronouns and antecedents in those sentences.

Vagueness with Non-Gendered Nouns

Modern English has increasingly moved away from gender specific job titles. While this makes for a more inclusive language, it also creates a greater necessity for pronoun clarity:

After the police officer gave the motorist a ticket, he drove away.

“Police officer” and “motorist” are both non-gendered nouns. Thus, it’s unclear who the “he” refers to. To remove the vagueness in this sentence, we need to replace “he” with either “police officer” or “motorist.”

After the police officer gave the motorist a ticket, the police officer drove away.
After the police officer gave the motorist a ticket, the motorist drove away. 

If, on the other hand, want to say that both parties left after the ticket was issued, you would use one of the following:

After the police officer gave the motorist a ticket, they both drove away.
After the police officer gave the motorist a ticket, the officer and the motorist drove away.

Vagueness with Gender-Specific Nouns

Pronoun vagueness can also occur when dealing with gender-specific nouns, especially proper names:

Ashley and Marie dropped her daughter off at daycare on the way to their English class at the English Island in Atlanta.

“Ashley” and “Marie” are traditionally feminine names. Therefore, it’s unclear whose daughter was dropped off at daycare. Depending on who the parent is, you would want to use one of the following choices instead:

Ashley and Marie dropped Ashley’s daughter off at daycare on the way to their English class at the English Island in Atlanta.
Ashley and Marie dropped Marie’s daughter off at daycare on the way to their English class at the English Island in Atlanta.

It is also possible that Ashley and Marie is a couple and the daughter in question “belongs” to both of them. If this was the case, you would want to swap out “her” with a plural possessive pronoun:

Ashley and Marie dropped their daughter off at daycare on the way to their English class at the English Island in Atlanta.

When a pair of names is traditionally of opposite genders, you can usually get away with using a singular gendered pronoun:

John and Marie dropped his daughter off at daycare on the way to their English class at the English Island in Atlanta.

Note that while this is generally considered acceptable, it is nonetheless something that you should strive to avoid. If we were to, for example, swap “John” with a gender neutral name (e.g. Casey) we’d find ourselves with another example of pronoun vagueness.

A final way to get eliminate pronoun vagueness would be to give the “daughter” a name. Let’s call her “Heather” for this example:

Ashley and Marie dropped Heather off at daycare on the way to their English class at the English Island in Atlanta.

Now it doesn’t matter whose daughter “Heather” is. By using proper names for all three of the individuals being discussing in the sentence, we have sidestepped the possibility of pronoun vagueness altogether.

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