Do Missing Pronouns Make You Cringe?

A reader named Kris sent this question: “I notice that people are no longer writing or speaking pronouns at the beginning of sentences. Is this acceptable now? I was taught that an implicit ‘You’ did not need to be written/spoken, but I’m noticing ‘I’ and ‘We’ not spoken or written.”

Kris gave several examples from recent communications:

“Glad you’re here today.”

“Recently was at a conference and heard Dr. Smith speak.”

“Hoping to develop a workflow…”

“Delighted to have you here.  Just wanted to welcome you all.”

 

I can add these from business emails I’ve received this month:

Interested in participating and meeting communications students? (Missing Are you.)

Have an opportunity, event, or resource to share? (Missing Do you.)

Thought you’d get a kick out of this! (Missing I.)

Look forward to speaking with you! (Missing I.)

Hope to hear back from you soon. (Missing I.)

 

Kris ended the email with this question: “Should I stop cringing when I don’t hear the ‘I’ or ‘We’?”

How do you respond to Kris? Do missing–implicit–pronouns bother you? Or is their absence acceptable in your email inbox and at staff presentations? I’d love to hear your thoughts before I share mine.

 

UPDATE ON JANUARY 23, 2020

Readers made valuable comments on this topic, which you can read below in the comments section. Here are my thoughts on implicit pronouns:

Language and communication are always changing. I am even more aware of that, having recently read David Shariatmadari’s Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About LanguageWhen I graduated from college and entered professional work, we wrote business letters, reports, and memos. Those documents had flowing, fleshed out paragraphs. But in today’s communication, we generally write emails, texts, and a range of online posts and updates–almost none of which have flowing paragraphs. And I believe we are more informal in our in-person communication as well.

Enter sentences without pronouns.

Our quick emails are often made up of one- or two-sentence paragraphs, many of which would begin with if we let them:

I was glad to hear from you.

I agree with your ideas about . . . .

I look forward to our call on Friday.

To avoid having a series of choppy paragraphs that begin with I, we drop some but not all of the pronouns:

Glad to hear from you.

Looking forward to our call on Friday.

The same is true of texts and other quick communications, which we sprinkle with expressions like these:

Got it! Thanks.

Running a few minutes late.

See you then.

Will do.

Just landed.

And that brevity and informality have moved into our in-personal communication, even at presentations:

Nice to see you!

Glad you are all here.

Need a bathroom break?

In the reader comments below, you will see that several people suggested the “Know your audience” guideline, which goes along with “Know your purpose.” In a formal communication or meeting, you would not write or say, “Will do.” You’d use “I will handle that for you” or “I’ll take responsibility for doing that.” At a formal presentation, you would not ask “Need a bathroom break?” You’d say “Let’s take a 10-minute break.”

Getting back to Kris, who raised this subject, I recommend not cringing about pronouns that are left out. As long as the message is clear, absent pronouns can lead to shorter documents and a friendly tone. Of course, if the situation requires a formal approach, pronouns and well-constructed sentences and paragraphs make sense.

As least one comment below mentions that leaving out pronouns can lead to miscommunication. “Read Donald’s report” can mean that I have read it or that you should–two very different thoughts. We risk that kind of  confusion whenever we focus on brevity rather than clarity. The other day I wrote “I’m on it” to tell someone that I was working on something. But she thought I meant I was on a list, and she wrote back to tell me that I was not “on it.” I should have said “I’m working on it.”

As with many writing dilemmas, the solution is to choose your language based on your audience and purpose.

Thanks to everyone who commented below!

12 COMMENTS

  1. I do it too. However, I don’t do it in formal emails and I don’t do it where the meaning can be ambiguous (don’t do it where the meaning can be ambiguous).

  2. I do this frequently, but mostly in text messages or other casual written exchanges with friends. It comes across as informal and familiar to me, so I don’t think I would be comfortable doing it in most written business communication. I would assume that if used in a business setting it might be done as an attempt to come across as friendly and familiar, and to more quickly build rapport. Sometimes that kind of thing works (depending on the industry and the purpose for communication—I think very informal language is common in sales copy, particularly for social media). But there’s also the possibility that it could come across as flippant, irritating people who prefer more formality. As with all communication, it makes sense to consider the audience first.

  3. Hi, Lynn! Long-time reader, first time poster. Did you notice that I just omitted a pronoun?!

    I agree with Stephanie that, as with most things, we should consider our audience. Pronoun dropping is usually fine in casual exchanges but should be avoided in most business contexts. I wrote about this a few years ago in an article on weak business writing. I’m copying/pasting from that article because I still stand by my argument.

    ==============

    While English isn’t a “pro drop” language, pronoun dropping is very much a part of conversational English:

    * See you tomorrow!
    * Sure is hot!
    * Plenty of fish in the sea!

    It’s even more common in fast-paced written communication like chatting and texting. But it’s generally restricted to casual speech—and for good reason. When you drop yourself from the sentence, you distance yourself from your own statements. You risk coming off as detached and insincere:

    * Appreciate your response.
    * Very sorry about that.

    Sometimes, the subject anchors the sentence and is crucial to clarity. In the following sentences, it’s not clear whether we’re telling the reader about ourselves or telling them to do something:

    * Just read the report.
    * Look forward to having that back up and running…

    By explicitly including yourself, you’re more likely to own your position and convey respect to your recipient. Reserve pronoun dropping for informal speech with those you know well.

    ==============

    Here’s the full article for anyone who’s curious:

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/weak-business-writing-how-fix-dan-duett/

    I’m curious to hear what you and others have to say! Cheers and thanks for years of helpful guidance 🙂

  4. I am super guilty of this and it does not bother me at all, unless it’s too ambiguous and I cannot be sure of the writer’s meaning. Once in a while I notice that I am doing it and then wonder if I should make sure to include the pronouns, but I also hate repetition and texts full of “I” or “you” – so if I can avoid them, I do.

    Interesting topic, as usual, and I am very curious to hear your point of view.

  5. I almost always do this, and then I almost always correct myself when I proofread before sending! 🙂 I feel the same as other commenters, that it’s OK in informal settings, but comes across as disrespectful in business and formal settings. I also see the ambiguity in sentences like ‘Look forward to being together.’ That could be seen as a command! (‘You better look forward to being together!’) So I always add the ‘I’ to make it clear I’m referring to myself. Thanks Lynn! Another great blog post!

  6. Hello Jennifer, K., Stephanie, Dan, Laura, Patty R., and Patty. Thanks for your enthusiastic comments on this issue.

    I have updated my blog post by adding to it, so you can see my thoughts on implicit pronouns. Thanks for your willingness to comment before I did.

    Jennifer, please read my additional comments in the blog post above. It’s fine to leave out pronouns–in most situations.

    K., thanks for giving that example of ambiguity!

    Stephanie, I agree with you. Thanks for your detailed comment.

    Dan, nice to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate your pasting in the content from your post. I read the full post and recommend it: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/weak-business-writing-how-fix-dan-duett

    Laura, I like your comment–a fine example of implicit pronouns.

    Patty R., I agree about the repetition of “I,” which I mention in my expanded blog post. As always, I appreciate your input.

    Patty, thanks for the example. You are smart to proofread your messages. It’s surprising the number of people who do not.

    Everyone, (I) thank you!

    Lynn

  7. I think it depends on the context. I don’t need to write business emails in English very often, and my native language, Finnish, is a “pro drop” language, like Spanish. Thanks, Dan, for a great way to describe the phenomenon and a very interesting article! When I do write business emails in English, they tend to be more formal than their equivalents in Finnish would be.

    That said, I often drop pronouns in informal online communication unless omitting the pronoun would make the message ambiguous.

    Maria

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here