The Grammarphobia Blog

Pronounitis

Q: I find the indiscriminate use of “he” to be a nagging irritant. This occurs, especially, in sports broadcasting. For instance: “It was a close play at first, his toe touched the bag just as he caught it, and he called him out, and he is furious.” This involves the base runner, the first baseman, the umpire, and the manager that disagreed with the call. I would appreciate your comments.

A: It may be that in the heat of play-by-play, sportscasters find it easier to dispense with names, and as a result overuse pronouns.

And of course live broadcasts don’t give sports announcers much time to think about grammar and usage. (Pat has tripped over a word or two during her appearances on WNYC.)

But in any kind of speech or writing, a pronoun shouldn’t raise a question in the reader’s or listener’s mind. The person being referred to should be obvious.

Pat discusses this problem in her book Woe Is I. In a section called “Watch Out for Pronounitis,” she writes:

“A sentence with too many pronouns (he, him, she, her, it, they, them, and other words that substitute for nouns) can give your reader hives: Fleur says Judy told her boyfriend she got a nose job and already regrets it.

“Whose boyfriend? Who got the nose job? Who regrets what?

“When you write things like this, of course you know the cast of characters. It won’t be so clear to somebody else. Don’t make the reader guess. Here’s a possibility: Judy already regrets telling her boyfriend about her nose job, or so Fleur says. Or maybe this: Fleur says her boyfriend heard about her nose job from Judy, who already regrets telling him.”

Sometimes pronouns aren’t confusing, just too numerous.

For instance, there’s no need to repeat the subject when a sentence has a series of verbs, like this one: “He hit a high fly into left field, then [he] ran to first and [he] nearly made it to second, but [he] was called out.”

The pronouns in brackets aren’t grammatically incorrect, just unnecessary.

Then there’s the pronoun that duplicates the subject, definitely a grammatical no-no: “My brother he was born in Boston.” Cut the “he.”

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