Let’s get rid of pronouns

Pronouns are confusing.

They’re confusing because they’re used in place of nouns and stand for: 1) people; 2) places; and 3) things.   And they’re easy to get mixed up. Pronouns are words like 1) I; 2) you; 3) he; 4) she; 5) it; 6) we; and 7) they.  (I can’t believe I remember both of these lists from eighth grade, but there you have it).

Pronouns are our attempts to save time.  They’re the words we choose when we think being specific takes too much energy. It’s easy to slip into pronouns when we’re thinking more of ourselves than of getting a point across.  When you don’t have time (or think you don’t have time) to say, “Bob sent this memo,” you may end up saying, “He sent this.”  You assume other people know what you mean. You assume they know who is “he” and what “it” is.

The problem is that when people aren’t sure what you mean, they assume they do. They act as if their guess is right, but often it isn’t.  You know exactly what you mean, because you have mental images of Bob and the memo. But your listener has no such images.  As soon as you eliminate the words “Bob” and “memo,” you risk trouble.

The pronouns we choose to save time often backfire.  They lead to miscommunications which then take a long time to fix.   Reviewing who said what takes a lot longer than it would taken to speak the two words: “Bob” and “memo.”

Here are two rules to make your life easier:

  1. Avoid using pronouns like “I, you, he, she, it, we, they, here, or there.”
  2. Use the specific names of people, places, and things instead.

With that, I’ll conclude the serious side of this posting.  Are you ready now for something fun?

The following is a true story showing what can happen when we use too many pronouns.

The setting: my cubicle at Apple Computer. The time: 6:30 on a Thursday night. The problem: I was late leaving work and worried I’d be late for a good friend’s birthday party. The characters: a young woman manager and me.

I was gathering my things to leave for the day, when into my cube rushed an agitated young woman. Her blonde hair was falling out of her pony tail. Her left hand was waving a document six inches from my face.

Did he give it to you?” she burst out, glaring at me.

The woman’s tone demanded an answer, but I couldn’t give her one because I didn’t know what she meant.  I didn’t know who “he” was, nor what “it” was that “he” might have given to me.

“Slow down,” I said. “Have a seat, lower your voice, and ask me again.  But this time be more specific, okay?”

The pony tailed beauty ignored me.  She repeated the question in a louder voice, this time emphasizing the first word. “DID he give it to you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,”  I told her. “Look, I’d like to help, but I can’t unless you’re more specific.  Relax.  Take a deep breath.   And tell me who is the ‘he’ you’re referring to and what is the ‘it’ I’m supposed to have?”

The woman ignored me a second time and began shaking her head.   She rushed to my desk, towered over me, and boomed out the same six words, but this time with a long pause between each one.

DID. HE. GIVE. IT. TO. YOU?” she asked so loudly the janitors looked up.

By this point, I was starting to get frustrated.  I wanted to leave and go to my friend’s party, but saw that here was a woman obviously upset.   Here was someone who couldn’t speak clearly, but still needed help.

I stopped to think.   I closed my eyes.  A few minutes of silence passed, but then, out of nowhere, the perfect answer popped into my head.  I chuckled, opened my eyes, and decided to milk the idea for all it was worth.

“You keep asking if he’s given it to me,” I said.  “Well, let me tell you something, honey. In my day, that only meant one thing.  And I’m here to tell you,  ‘NO. HE. DID. NOT!’”

We both roared.   The young manager realized how ridiculous she’d sounded, and I realized we had a long way to go before we communicated well.  Most important, we both realized that when it comes to clarity, the names of people, places, and things beat pronouns every time.

Moral of the story: Cut back on pronouns. You’ll save time, energy, and friends.