Pronoun Panic!

Woah! Boss! Hey, that coffee mug just about clipped my head.

Sorry Jonathan.

Oh, now look. It's all over my pants.

What? What are you talking about Jonathan?

The coffee, boss. The coffee. It's all over me. Why'd you throw that mug? Last time it was me. Now it's you. What's up with that?

Ah, Jonathan, I'm writing this book for Apress.

Sure boss. That's your "Beginning MUMPS" book, right?

Yes it is Jonathan.

So what's the problem boss?

Pronouns Jonathan, pronouns. I work late into the night finishing a chapter. My kids miss me at their wrestling match. The wife misses me at, well, never mind that. I send the chapter to my editor. Next afternoon I get it back, and it's bleeding red from comments about my pronouns.

Sorry to hear that boss. Maybe I can help. I'm about to brew up some peppermint tea. It's very calming. Why don't I brew you a cup too. Then let's huddle in your office and look at that chapter.

Sounds great Jonathan.

You're gettin' a paper cup though....

Heh, ok Jonathan. Guess I deserve that.

...

Ok boss. Let's look at your chapter.

Noun in Heading

Jonathan, my editor complains every time I follow a heading with a pronoun. Here's a passage in Chapter 1 where I talk about the name of the language. Look at the highlighted text:

Language Name

This is the subject of debate and controversy in the MUMPS community. The original name MUMPS goes back to the language's origin in the healthcare industry. Today MUMPS is widely used outside of medicine, and many see the need for a more serious name, one not derived from an inside medical joke. Hence the name M. However, there is not universal agreement on the new name. That the ISO standard on the language accepts and uses both names equally is evidence of that.

Boss, you're editor is right! It's not good form to treat a heading as an antecedent.

But why not? It's perfectly clear to me.

It what, boss?

Jonathan!

Sorry boss. Ok. There are two arguments to make here. One comes from the Chicago Manual of Style.

Really? I've got a copy right here.

You bet boss. Look at chapter 1, paragraph 79.

Jonathan, sure enough. It says not to use a pronoun to refer back to a word in a heading. But isn't that just an stylistic issue? It's not a hard and fast rule of English, is it?

It is a style rule boss. Nothing is carved in stone. It's a good rule though, and I'll tell you why.

Ok Jonathan. I'm listening.

Boss, my approach to headings is to think of them as standing apart from the main text in a document. Headings indicate structure. They don't convey content.

What? They don't convey content?

No boss, they don't. Headings indicate structure. Everything else is content. Pretend your headings aren't there. Your chapter should convey the exact same information as before.

Pretend my headings aren't there? Are you certain of that Jonathan?

Absolutely boss.

So Jonathan, what's the solution?

Boss, you should restate the noun. It's as simple as that. For example:

Language Name

The language's name is the subject of debate and controversy  in the MUMPS community. The original name MUMPS goes back to the language's origin in the healthcare industry. Today MUMPS is widely used outside of medicine, and many see the need for a more serious name, one not derived from an inside medical joke. Hence the name M. However, there is not universal agreement on the new name. That the ISO standard on the language accepts and uses both names equally is evidence of that.

You can also rephrase to avoid the repetition between the heading and the first sentence. Here are two possibilities:

Programmers have been embroiled for some years in a debate over the language's name. Is it MUMPS or M? The original name MUMPS...

M Technology Association's introduction of the name M in 1993 has led to many years of debate over control of the name and whether it should be M or MUMPS. The original name MUMPS Goes back to ....

Brilliant! Those are great suggestions. Thanks Jonathan.

Sure boss.

Unidentifed Concept

Now here's another problem Jonathan. Look at the final sentence in my paragraph on language. Here's the end of that paragraph again:

...However, there is not universal agreement on the new name. That the ISO standard on the language accepts and uses both names equally is evidence of that.

My editor put a big, red circle around the second occurrence of "that". Why?

Simple boss. Your second occurrance of "that" is referring to something that you did not explicitly name in the paragraph.

Oh?

Do you know what you were referring to boss?

Sure, I was referring to the disagreement over the name.

Then that's what you should say . Here's the solution. Look carefully at the final word that I've added:

...However, there is not universal agreement on the new name. That the ISO standard on the language accepts and uses both names equally is evidence of that disagreement.

Ahhh! I see. You gave an explicit name to my concept. You chose the name "disagreement". Then  you placed that word following the pronoun. I like it!

Exactly right boss. I asked the question "That what?" You answered with "That disagreement". And there you have it. Simple.

Great stuff Jonathan. Whenever I refer to a concept, I'll reference it by name. I'll make up a name if I have to.

Noun in Preceding Paragraph

Anything else boss?

Yes, yes, there's more. Here are two paragraphs that I've written. My antecedent's clear. But my editor complained anyway. What's up with that?

When you need the current date and time in a MUMPS program, you can grab it from the special variable $H. What you'll get back are two values. Both relate to the epoch chosen for the language--31 December, 1840. The first value is the number of days since the epoch. The second is the number of seconds past midnight.

Because it's so unusual, many have wondered about it. Why was it choosen? Wikipedia recounts a story by James M. Poitras, one of the language's creators. James chose the epoch specifically to predate the oldest living United States citizen at the time. He began by looking at the early 1840s. Then he settled on a date that made for a straightforward implementation to his leap-year algorithm.

See Jonathan? I specifically mention "epoch". Then comes my pronoun "it's". My editor still complains.

Boss, the word "it's" is a contraction.

So I shouldn't use a contraction?

The contraction's fine boss. Your editor commented because your pronoun referred to an antecedent in a previous paragarph.

You mean I can't do that?

I'm honestly not sure boss. I believe it is not an absolute rule that an antecedent must be in the same paragraph. Still, stating the noun earlier in the same paragraph is a good safe harbor.

I see. I think.

You see boss, readers tend to digest written material in paragraph chunks. It's easier on your readers if you restate a noun rather than referring back to a previous paragraph that is no longer the focus of the reader's attention.

Sure. Ok. I'll buy that. Then I should begin my second paragraph as follows:

...

Because the epoch is so unusual, many have wondered about it. Why was it choosen?

That's what I'd do boss. I always avoid referring to an antecedent not specifically named in the current paragraph. Restate a noun if you need to, or the name of a concept. Then it's very clear what you're talking about.

Pronoun Before the Noun

Jonathan, let's turn that epoch sentence around. Sometimes I put the pronoun first. Is that ok?

Not sure what you mean boss.

Here Jonathan, here's an example:

...

Because it is so unusual, many have wondered about the epoch. Why was it choosen?

I see what you're getting at. Your pattern here is what's referred to as a cataphora.

Cataphora?

It means to refer forward to something coming later. You use the pronoun "it" to refer forward to the antecedent "epoch" at the end your sentence.

Cataphora. You actually knew that word?

Boss, sometimes I surprise myself.

Is cataphora wrong Jonathan? My book editor doesn't seem to like it much when I refer forward to something.

Not wrong boss. Sometimes there are good reasons to be cataphoric.

So why does my editor change my sentences around?

Probably because you don't have a good reason for forward-referencing. Unless there's a rhetorical reason to put the pronoun first, most copyeditors will rewrite to put the noun first. It's a clarity thing. Putting the noun first saves readers from having to hold the pronoun in their head long enough to resolve it later. The noun comes first. The pronoun is clear immediately. There's less risk of confusion. 

I see. Cataphora is not always wrong then.

No, it's not always wrong. Your epoch sentence is actually clear to me. I'd leave it with the pronoun first if I were your editor. But I would not complain if I were the author and my own editor changed it to be anaphoric.

Anaphoric, Jonathan?

Meaning when the noun comes first. An anaphora is when the noun precedes the pronoun.

Cool! Jonathan, some things just aren't worth worrying about. Cataphora. Anaphora. Whichever my editor wants is fine by me. It's not like I'm writing a novel. I'm writing a technical book here.

You got it boss. Anything else?

Confusion of Nouns

Just one more example Jonathan. Look at the following paragraph. I'm not really sure what's wrong with it. My editor didn't like it though.

A MUMPS variable can hold a simple value like any other language, or it can hold a hierarchy of values. It can hold a number or a string, but a number is always represented as an alphabetical string of digits.

Simple boss. You have intervening nouns.

I do?

Sure. You have four nouns: 1) variable, 2) value, 3) language, 4) hierarchy

Ok. So?

When readers encounter the word "it" in your second sentence, what's the most recent noun on their mind?

Jonathan. I see. Readers see "it" while they are still thinking "hierarchy".

Exactly boss. You and I can work out that you intend for "it" to refer to "variable", but all those intervening nouns force the reader to stop and disentangle your meaning. Most will be able to divine your intent, but the effort of doing so is like tripping over an icy step on a cold winter's day.

I should restate the noun, shouldn't I Jonathan.

That'd solve the problem boss. Restating the noun is what I'd do. For example:

A MUMPS variable can hold a simple value like any other language, or it can hold a hierarchy of values. A variable can hold a number or a string, but a number is always represented as an alphabetical string of digits.

Summary

Jonathan, I really appreciate your help. It sounds like all my pronoun problems will go away if I just follow a few, simple rules-of-thumb:

  • Ensure my antecedent is earlier in the same paragraph.
  • Give a clear name to any conceptual antecedents.
  • Always have a clear answer to the question: "This what?", or "It what?", etc.

Boss, I think you've got it. Don't forget to set each chapter aside for a day or two. Then come back and reread. Pronoun problems will be clear as crystal, and you'll nail 'em dead.

You mixed your metaphors Jonathan.

Yeah, but that's another article. Let's finish this tea while it's still hot.