By Anna Swift • April 05, 2017•Writers in Residence
To use a pronoun or not to use a pronoun. That is the question. (Or at least it should be.) People love their pronouns not only in writing (whether legal or otherwise) but also in conversation. The problem, however, is that, although pronouns are generally valuable as shortcuts, they are also inherently ambiguous when the reader or the listener can't be certain about the intended antecedent of a pronoun. For example, I can't count the number of times I've left a conversation feeling confused about the meaning of a pronoun (not to mention the number of times I've had to ask the follow-up question of, "Oh, are you referring to such and such?"). Surely you know the feeling too.
In my last column installment, I continued my discussion on the principle of concision by focusing on certain words that should, generally speaking, be omitted from legal writing. In this installment, I'll wrap up that discussion by focusing less on the omission of words and more on the substitution of words with, namely, third person pronouns. Specifically, I'll explore a series of examples--each a slight variation of the next--that exemplify the different approaches I noticed during the course of my judicial clerkship that were taken with respect to the use of third person pronouns, and I'll deliberate some of the pros and cons of these varying approaches. So let's jump right into it.
To begin with, consider this simple sentence: Abigail Anderson testified that Bianca Anderson was ten years old when she met the plaintiff. In the preceding sentence, to whom does the pronoun "she" refer? If you've guessed Bianca, then for purposes of this example, you'd be correct. Bianca is, after all, the nearest matching antecedent to the pronoun.
But could you reread the same example and interpret the same pronoun as referring to Abigail? You could if you interpret the pronoun as referring to the main actor of the sentence--Abigail. Thus, the example shows two different approaches to the use of third person pronouns: that such a pronoun could refer to the nearest matching antecedent or such a pronoun could refer to the main actor of the sentence. Both approaches capitalize on the reader's ability to either remember the last individual of the same gender mentioned before the pronoun or to remember the main actor of the sentence; at the same time, they also show the inherent ambiguity involved when the sentence contains a third person pronoun and more than one matching antecedent.
Also problematic for the nearest-matching-antecedent approach is that it can result in the situation where a third person pronoun is used on more than one occasion in a sentence to refer to two different individuals. Let's look at an example: Abigail Anderson testified that she knew Bianca Anderson was ten years old when she met the plaintiff. Here, assume the pronoun "she" is meant to refer to Abigail in the first instance and to Bianca in the second instance. If you're like some of the people with whom I worked as a judicial clerk, then the changing nature of the pronoun may strike you as odd and therefore problematic.
As a result of this concern, then, a third approach to the use of third person pronouns emerges: that of a third person pronoun being used throughout a sentence to signify the same individual each time, no matter who else is mentioned in the sentence. Observe: Abigail Anderson testified that she knew Bianca Anderson was ten years old when she met the plaintiff, Courtney Stewart, because she had been told so multiple times. For purposes of this example, assume the pronoun "she" refers to Abigail in each instance. Certainly the intervening mention of Bianca and of Courtney could easily cause confusion as to the intended antecedent of the pronoun. And yet I've seen not only this particular approach taken but also that of a third person pronoun being used throughout an entire paragraph to signify the same individual. The latter approach can quickly lead to a problematic paragraph if the antecedent of the pronoun isn't even mentioned in some of the middle sentences of the paragraph but is mentioned in the first and last sentences.
What really complicates matters, however, is when legal writers appear to change approaches to the use of third person pronouns within their writings, sometimes using a third person pronoun to refer to the nearest matching antecedent, sometimes using one to refer to the main actor of a sentence, and sometimes using one to signify the same antecedent from before. Perhaps, though, these same writers would argue that what they're really doing is allowing the context of a sentence to inform the meaning of each of the pronouns they use. In other words, they'll use a third person pronoun when the context makes clear which individual is the intended antecedent. Here's an example: Abigail Anderson testified that she knew Bianca Anderson was ten years old at the time of the meeting because she had been told so multiple times by Bianca. In this example, the pronoun "she" obviously refers to Abigail in both instances: "she" can't be Bianca in the second instance, unless Bianca talks to herself, which isn't a likely scenario for purposes of this example.
One last approach to the use of third person pronouns that bears mentioning is that sometimes such a pronoun is used to introduce an individual or to create a sense of mystery. In other words, sometimes the pronoun comes before the intended antecedent. For example, a legal writer might write that Although he wasn't absolutely certainly about how things would turn out, Michael Adams assumed all would work out favorably for him in the end. The pronoun "he" precedes and introduces the intended antecedent Michael with presumably no resulting confusion for the reader.
A legal writer might also precede the intended antecedent with the third person pronoun as a literary tool to create a sense of mystery. For example, the writer might compose the following paragraph: He had always known things were too good to be true. Life was never meant to be a picnic for him, and in the back of his mind, he knew it was just a matter of time before the events of his past would catch up with him. Of this Michael Adams was certain. Hopefully you agree no clarifications are needed with respect to this example.
With these various approaches to the use of third person pronouns in mind, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the truly safe and advocated approach for third person pronouns that don't precede their antecedents is to use such pronouns in a sentence when only one matching antecedent exists in the sentence. Certainly such an approach can lead to long-winded sentences when more than one matching antecedent exists (for example, Abigail Anderson testified that she knew Bianca Anderson was ten years old when Bianca met the plaintiff because Abigail said Abigail had been told so multiple times by Bianca.), but at the end of the day, how much more is a long-winded sentence worth than an ambiguous sentence? To use a pronoun or not to use a pronoun. That is the question. And it's one all legal writers will have to answer according to each writer's own common-sense reasoning.
In this column installment, I've finished discussing the principle of concision by focusing on the topic of third person pronouns, which are valuable so long as they're readily discernible. In my next installment, I'll embark on a discussion of a new principle of writing. Return next month to read about the concept of cohesion.