Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Grammar Moment: Pronoun conventions

We want to sound educated; we don't want to sound stuffy

While some issues related to pronouns (agreement, case, reference, avoiding shifts) are primarily matters of grammar, there are some other principles that deal with style rather than grammatical correctness. One such principle is choosing the right person and number in keeping with the expectations of academic writing. The goal is to have writing that is clear, and that treats readers as respected individuals – not buddies in the dormitory basement rec room.

Using the correct pronouns serves both goals. Pronouns that are used according to academic readers' expectations will have clear meaning, and they will also communicate the proper level of respect. Here are the generally accepted conventions for pronoun usage:

  • First-person singular (I/me): This is used for narrative of the writer's own experiences and actions. Some instructors will forbid the use of the first-person singular; that's not necessarily because it's wrong, but rather, because personal narratives often turn into stories without a point, and academic writing should always have an underlying point. Also, in much academic writing, such as lab reports, the emphasis is on the procedure, not the experimenters, so instead of saying, "I decanted the solution …" you will say, "The solution was decanted …"
    NOTE: You should never use phrases such as "I think" or "in my opinion"; such phrases convey a sense of apology for what you're saying and weaken your position. Stand firmly.
  • First-person plural (we/us): In academic writing, this is the conventional choice for referring to society in general ("We must take measures to keep our nation safe …"). It is also used to refer to groups of which the writer is a member ("Women still face a glass ceiling; we must therefore …").
  • Second-person singular and plural (you): For most academic writing, the second person is considered too informal. It is acceptable in more casual sorts of writing, such as blog posts, and for instructions, in which there is a clear rhetorical position of the writer speaking directly to the reader.
    Don't use you to refer to people in general, as in, "You don't see many drunk drivers in Connecticut." Well, of course, I've never seen any drunk drivers in Connecticut; I've never been to Connecticut. In academic writing, it would be better to say, "Drunk drivers are seldom seen in Connecticut." Also, don't use you to refer to groups of people that may not include the reader, as in, "What if you were pregnant and you didn't know what to do?" About half of the human race is biologically incapable of becoming pregnant.
  • Third-person singular (he/him, she/her): Use the third-person singular to refer to an individual. This could be a specific person who has been named ("Wally is rich, and he is single"), or to a singular noun representing a group ("A student should keep his or her backpack neat"). Notice that in the second example, you can't use the plural their. This is not merely an issue of style; it is an issue of grammatical correctness; you can't use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. That leads us to …
  • Third-person plural (they/them): Use they and them to refer to specific groups of people. If you want to be grammatically correct and gender-neutral while avoiding the awkward phrase his or her in the previous example, you can simply make the entire sentence plural and make the problem go away: "Students should keep their backpacks neat." If you're having problems making pronouns agree with the words they refer to, you can solve the problem almost every time by making everything plural.
    On the other hand, some lazy writers use they to avoid thinking – as in, "They don't like drunk drivers in Connecticut." Who the heck are they? The entire population of Connecticut? The Connecticut highway patrol? Connecticut traffic-court judges? A careful writer will think about who it is that dislikes drunk drivers and then name that entity clearly.

You will note that I don't list one as a pronoun. That is because, in English, it's not a pronoun; it's a noun. In some languages, such as French and Spanish, there's a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that usually translates into English as "one," but that often actually means "people" or the informal, non-academic "they." Yes, it is grammatically correct to use one, but then it has to be followed by the awkward pronoun phrase he or she (obviously, one is singular), or else you have to keep saying one. That leads to some really stuffy-sounding writing. Yes, academic writing has its formality, but when you get to sounding like a caricature of a constipated elderly British noblewoman, you're going too far.

You will also note that some of the recommendations I make above encourage use of the passive voice ("The solution was decanted …" vs. "I decanted the solution …"; "Drunk drivers are seldom seen …" vs. "You don't see many drunk drivers …"). Some well-meaning pedants in your academic past may have told you to avoid passive voice at all costs. That advice was misguided. When you wish to emphasize the action rather than the performers of the action, the passive voice is the best choice. It also allows you to avoid pronouns altogether, rather than using one that may not be appropriate for the academic writing task.

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