Earlier this week, I was sitting at my medical editor desk, when a scowl of incredulity ran over my face (this kind of thing can happen when you’re an editor and read other people’s writing). My vexation, my pique, my wordsmith irritation came from seeing the phrase “it reduced its effect”—seeing that phrase, you no doubt say to yourself, “What up, nerdboy, what the hell’s wrong with that?”
In fact, it would be a perfectly fine phrase, and I would recommend it for an award, if both uses of the word “it” referred to the same noun, but it referred to two different nouns, spaced haphazardly here and there in the preceding sentence. Figuring out what it was talking about demanded a good bit more imagination than I’m inclined to think a medical article ought to require.
So you know what a pronoun is, right? It’s a part of speech that always votes for the noun. Hah, OK, I amused myself there. I couldn’t resist a slight political joke, since we just had Super Tuesday here in Georgia, when we all got really drunk and went to vote—well, just normal southern politics.
I’m off track. So a pronoun, it’s a word that stands in for a noun, as an expression of human laziness, to save us from the trouble of having to say the noun all the time. Instead of referring to my Uncle Jasper Leroy, I can just say “he”. One syllable instead of six, which is all he deserves, anyway. When you’re really drunk on your way to vote, and can’t even remember the names, it’s useful to stagger up and slur out “I vote for him”. Or “her” of course, equal opportunity political inebriation.
The problem with pronouns is that they don’t mean much. Let’s take “he” because by wild coincidence I just mentioned it. It means “singular” and it means “male” and nothing else. There’s an awful lot of them. Which he are we talking about? Donald Trump? Abraham Lincoln? Kanye West? (When’s the last time you saw those three names in a row?)
So when we see a pronoun, or hear one, even though we’re not that conscious of it, our brain immediately searches back through the last few nouns we’ve run into to see if one of them will make sense in the sentence. Usually, I suppose we find something that works well enough, and we go on. But sometimes we get it wrong, and then there’s confusion, or sometimes we just don’t know what that pronoun is talking about.
Speaking as a medical editor, or as a writer, or as a human being, I will almost never allow the word “this” immediately followed by a verb, because what on God’s green earth does “this” refer to? Sometimes I swear even the writers must not know. They’ll write things like “This shows effectiveness when treating patients” after they’ve just been talking about several things.
For people who want to become good writers—and if you’re a computer programmer, DON’T TRY THIS, just accept that you’ll never be good—one way to improve is to become really conscious of pronouns, to consider whether the reader can easily find the right noun in the last few words.
On the whole, though, pronouns are incredibly boring, with two exceptions. Now that we’ve got a bunch of gender hokey pokey going on in our society, people have been hard at work for a good while now making up new pronouns that can refer to a single human without saying “he” or “she”. You can look it up.
It’s mighty hard to change the pronouns people speak with, however, since we use them every day all day long, although thou knowest it can be done over time. We don’t talk like Shakespeare anymore. (In case you don’t catch it, “thou” is a pronoun and it went away.)
The other exception to interesting pronouns is a bunch of slangy words that I’ve never heard anyone refer to as pronouns, so maybe I can be the first to declare that “thingamabob” is a pronoun, as are “doohickey” and “whatchamacallit”. These words have no particular meaning other than to represent a noun of some sort, if you can ever figure out what that noun is.
And unlike the boring short pronouns, these extravagant pronouns step forward with a sense of grandeur, like Oscar Wilde on methamphetamine, wearing velvet jackets and lace cuffs, with large hats covered with flowers and long feathers. If we are going to flounder around in a confusing linguistic world where meaning is hazy, the words should at least be colorful.