Writing tip: Avoid vague pronouns

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Theresa Bell

pronoun is a word that replaces a specific noun, and the antecedent is the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. When the pronoun is vague (e.g., "it", "this", "that"), readers may struggle to recognize the connection between the pronoun and its antecedent. For example, in "when spring arrived last year, the sunshine returned, the flowers bloomed, and the birds sang. It was great and that made me happy", it is unclear what "it" and "that" refer to. Either pronoun could refer to spring arriving or any of the three events mentioned in the sentence. 

Vague pronouns are troublesome for readers because they make sentences more difficult to understand. To avoid vague pronouns, be as specific as possible in your descriptions, rather than relying on your reader's ability to interpret the pronoun correctly e.g., "when spring arrived last year, the sunshine returned, the flowers bloomed, and the birds sang. That change in seasons was great, and experiencing spring on the West Coast made me happy". To catch vague pronouns in your text, search the document for all instances of "it", "that', and "this", and make sure that the connection between the pronoun and its antecedent is clear. Often, vague pronouns can be solved simply by adding a word that clarifies the pronoun e.g., "this experience" or "that information".

For more information, please see "Vague Pronouns" (YouTube video), and please contact the Writing Centre if you have any questions about this tip or any other writing-related matter.

Theresa Bell
Manager, Blended Learning Success