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Avoid vague pronouns

If I told you that, "Dr. Macklin often brings his dog Champion to visit with the patients. He just loves to give big, wet, sloppy kisses!", would you wonder exactly who is doing the kissing? Similarly, if I told you that, "the sunshine returned, the flowers bloomed, and the birds sang. It was great and that made me happy", would you know exactly which thing was great and what made me happy?

Let's back up a step and engage in a bit of grammar-speak. A pronoun is a word that takes the place of or refers to a specific noun. For more information on pronouns, please click here. Where writers tend to run into trouble is when a vague pronoun replaces a noun. In the sentence at the beginning of this tip, "it" and "that" are both vague pronouns because either word could refer to any or all of the three events mentioned in the sentence. "It" is a singular pronoun, which means that only one of the events was great and made the author happy, but with the use of the vague pronouns, the event "it" refers to is unclear.

Considering that the point of writing is to ensure your audience quickly and easily understands what you're communicating, vague pronouns are simply trouble-makers. Instead, try to be as specific as you can: "Dr. Macklin often brings his dog Champion to visit with the patients; Champion just loves to give big, wet, sloppy kisses!", or "I was happy when the sunshine returned and the flowers bloomed, and I enjoyed listening to the birds singing." 

Do you have any writing-related questions? Please contact the Writing Centre.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator 

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