Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

This is a very common grammar mistake that people make and it’s one that has quickly become a big pet peeve of mine. While some people will tell you that perfect grammar doesn’t matter as long as you are understood, this is one of the errors that can really affect how your words are interpreted.

Let’s start with a simple definition. A “pronoun” is a word that is taking the place of another noun or noun phrase. I could say, “Tim fixes cars for a living and he is really good at it.” There are two pronouns in that sentence: “he” refers to Tim and “it” refers to fixing cars. Using pronouns in this fashion is quite clear and there is virtually no ambiguity.

Who Is She?

Now, consider this example:

Julie and Sarah met up at the mall, so she could give her some supplies for next week.

In this case, we do have some ambiguity, because the pronoun isn’t used in the clearest fashion possible. We have two people in this sentence–Julie and Sarah–but we can’t be sure whether “she” is referring to Julie or to Sarah. Is Julie giving the supplies to Sarah or is Sarah giving the supplies to Julie? Because of this potential confusion, the sentence can be rewritten in this way:

“Julie met Sarah at the mall to give her some supplies for next week.”

Although I’m still using a pronoun in this example, it is much easier to recognize that “her” is Sarah and it is Julie who is doing the giving. This takes individual sentences in isolation, but what about when you are carrying on a conversation with someone and the subject matter keeps shifting?

The Casual Conversation

Given that, it is even more important to use your pronouns carefully, ensuring that there is little to ambiguity about meaning. I’ve experienced far too many situations where I may be discussing several topics with someone and then he or say says something like:

Oh! And he went over there at the new place next to the other store where they have been going since she first recommended it online.

If we had been talking about multiple people, I have no idea which “he” is the subject of this sentence. You’ll also notice several other ambiguities, like “over there” and “they.” This is terribly unclear, but sentences like these are far too common.

Be Understood

I don’t claim to have perfect grammar all the time and I’m willing to forgive people for confusing who and whom, because the meaning is still reasonably clear. Unclear pronoun usage, though, is incredibly frustrating, because the two (or more) participants in the conversations could be talking about entirely different people, places or things without even knowing it.