Pronoun Puzzlers: Who Does What to Whom?

I was enjoying the newspaper the other day when I read an article that began with this sentence:

"New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has dismissed his chief of emergency management after learning that he deployed government workers to clear a tree at his Long Island home during Hurricane Sandy, an administration official said Wednesday."

Question: From whose driveway had the tree been cleared? Governor Cuomo's or the chief's?

What do you think?

Not being a New Yorker, not considering where Governor Cuomo lives, and still drinking my first cup of caffeine, I believed Governor Cuomo's driveway had been cleared. I wondered whether the chief had thought it appropriate to clear Cuomo's driveway simply because he is the governor.

I was wrong. I learned in the sixth paragraph that the chief had had his own driveway cleared.

Yet I don't accept blame for my error. The writer made me do it! He used the pronoun his after references to two men, the governor and the chief of emergency management. (The chief was identified by a man's name in the article's next paragraph.)

This revision makes the reference clear:

"New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has dismissed his chief of emergency management after learning that he deployed government workers to clear a tree at the chief's Long Island home during Hurricane Sandy, an administration official said Wednesday."

As grammarians say, the problem was that the pronoun did not have a clear antecedent. But let's call it a pronoun puzzler.

Pronoun puzzlers appear in business writing in sentences like these:

Mark explained that Brian would staff the booth, and he would be at the reception for new interns. (Is he Mark or Brian?)
These stressful conditions are creating serious challenges for our employees, and we must address them. (Does them refer to conditions, challenges, or employees?)
When I wrote the report, I was not aware that the driver had left the scene of the accident. This has created confusion. (Does this refer to an incomplete report, the lack of awareness, or the driver's behavior?)

Some pronoun puzzlers have no antecedent:

All we need to do is complete a letter of agreement. (Who is we? That is, who will write the letter?)

The calls will be made by the end of the week. (Who will make the calls?)

You may be thinking that we readers can usually puzzle out what or whom a pronoun represents and who is completing the action. If so, we agree. But I also believe that as writers we should not create puzzlers for our readers at work, no matter how quickly they may be able to solve them. (I hope my they and them are clear!)

Do you often have to puzzle out who does what in the pieces you read at work? How about in meeting notes–do you know who will complete each action item?

Lynn
Syntax Training 

PS: Learn about our upcoming public business writing classes

5 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Lynn,

    Great article! Would you kindly provide a few examples of the correct way to “de-puzzle” the above sentences so I may see (thus understand) more clearly,
    as I enhance my writing skills?

    Thanking you in advance,

    Renelza

    P.S. Do you have any scheduled upcoming training events in the New York City area? Please keep me posted. Thank you again!

  2. Your last example (“The calls will be made by the end of the week”) is of course the passive voice, which is much loved in the business world because it saves the writer from having to say who is going to do (or did) what. The passive voice makes for unclear but diplomatic sentences.

  3. Hello, Renelza. Thank you for asking for examples. I am glad to supply them.

    These are revisions, among several possibilities, of the puzzling examples above:

    Mark explained that Brian would staff the booth, and Mark would be at the reception for new interns.

    We must address these stressful conditions, which are creating serious challenges for our employees.

    When I wrote the report, I was not aware that the driver had left the scene of the accident. His leaving has created confusion.

    All we need to do is complete a letter of agreement. Will you write it? (Depending on the context, the original example may be acceptable.)

    Jeremy will make the calls by the end of the week. (Depending on the context, the original example may be acceptable.)

    Renelza, I do not have any classes scheduled in New York City now. Please subscribe to my free monthly e-newsletter, which always lists upcoming classes. You may subscribe here: http://syntaxtraining.com/signup.html .

    Lynn

  4. That is great, people’s lack of clear and concise language. It also proves that unlike the old day, there is almost no-one proof reading anything today either.

    Keep them coming

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