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Who Are They? Three Steps to Clearer Writing

Apr 19, 2018

Steps to Clearer Writing

So your student can write a complete sentence, structure a paragraph, even craft an essay. Great! What’s left to improve? What makes writing engaging to readers? When meaning is easy to grasp, readers can follow a train of thought and be captured by it, but even well-organized and content-rich writing can be difficult to understand if pronouns are not used precisely. In particular, inexperienced writers often misuse the pronouns they, you, and it.

Getting Definitions Straight

Every pronoun should have one word that it refers back to; this single word is called the pronoun’s antecedent. Yet young writers—and most of us in our informal speech—use some pronouns without referring to any particular person or thing, that is, without an antecedent. Grammarians call these kinds of errors indefinite pronoun references.

Tackling Specific Problems

Steps to Clearer WritingOne pronoun often so misused is they. And who is the elusive they? In sentences like this one, “Every year in Florida, they offer training in alligator wrestling,” the pronoun they refers to, well, nobody in particular. (And perhaps concerning alligator wrestling, referring to nobody is for the best.) However, if we want to correct that sentence, we can replace they with an appropriate noun: “Every year in Florida, certain wildlife parks offer training in alligator wrestling.” Although you may wish to discourage eager young wrestlers away from those parks, at least the sentence now expresses a coherent thought. They is not the only pronoun to be used imprecisely, however.

Steps to Clearer WritingAnother pronoun frequently misused is you. To complicate matters, almost all of us use you in an indefinite manner in our speech. To illustrate, imagine a young scholar wants to buy a piranha for the family’s aquarium. A friend, however, warns the family, saying, “In some states, you cannot legally sell piranhas.” Since the family is considering buying not selling a piranha, you does not refer to the family. Well, then, to whom does you refer? You guessed it: nobody in particular; the reference is indefinite. Having identified the problem, the writer can correct it simply by replacing the indefinite pronoun you with a noun: “In some states, pet stores cannot legally sell piranhas.”

Steps to Clearer Writing Finally, the pronoun it can be used imprecisely. For example, if a family is studying reptiles, a student might write this sentence: “In the national park’s junior ranger guide, it warns hikers to beware of copperheads that lurk beneath large, flat boulders in rocky areas.” So, who is it? Well, obviously, it is the guide, so using the word it immediately after the antecedent is unnecessary and repetitive.  Fortunately, correcting this kind of pronoun error is simple; merely omit in and it for a fluid sentence without an awkward pronoun reference. The revised sentence reads, “The national park’s junior ranger guide warns hikers to beware of copperheads that lurk beneath large, flat boulders in rocky areas.”

Although simple to correct, these three pronoun reference errors are ubiquitous in writing. Eliminating them will set your student’s writing apart from the muddied prose that is all too common and will make the writing easier to understand and more engaging.

Additional Examples: Towson University provides helpful diagrams illustrating sentences lacking clear antecedents. To view them, use this link and go to Error #3.


Marilyn Whitlock loves learning and sharing that love with others. She has a bachelor’s degree in English education, a master’s degree in English literature, a graduate certificate in instructional design, and has completed coursework for a Ph.D. in English literature with a concentration in British literature of the 18th century. As a Ph.D. candidate, she received a full academic scholarship, was a graduate assistant, and taught freshman composition. Since completing her education, Marilyn has taught in a variety of venues including public schools, private Christian schools, and within the homeschool community.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.