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:
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?
PS: Learn about our upcoming public business writing classes.