Troublesome Pronouns in Writing, Reading, and Test Taking

Pronouns are troublesome in our WRITING, READING, and TEST TAKING. This blog is a three-part series!  This week I focus on TWO types of pronoun problems within reading and test taking. The subsequent blogs focus on pesky pronouns within student writing: vague demonstrative pronouns and overuse of the relative pronoun “that.” 

Reminder: Pronouns are little words that often like to be bad.  A pronoun can be like a pesky fly that ends up at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and annoys the wrong number of people. (See pages 12 and 13 in Guide to Grammar in order to recognize personal, possessive, demonstrative, relative, and indefinite pronouns. Pages 84-85 provide a pronoun exercise – answers found in the back of the book.)

Textual Comprehension and Analysis

There are TWO main problems with pronoun usage within non-fiction texts:

#1  Pronouns + Compression Nouns

Often the pronouns this, these, that appear in front of an abstract noun, making comprehension challenging.  Abstract nouns are nouns that do not refer to actual physical objects.  Idea, assertion, concept, notion, argument, phenomena ….are all examples of abstract nouns. These nouns are sometimes called COMPRESSION NOUNS because they compress lots of information into a single word. 

This, these, that + compression noun appear frequently in SAT, AP, and textbook readings. Understanding what these abstract nouns refer to is crucial to comprehension.  For example, if you can’t draw a relationship between “this notion” and the specific occurrence it refers to, you will not be able to comprehend the author’s message and, consequently, answer a corresponding question.  

These pronouns + abstract nouns (argument, assertion, description, etc.) may appear either before or after the referent – sometimes even in a different paragraph! Most of the time if you encounter a question that requires you to identify what such a noun is referring to, you must back up and read from BEFORE the place where the noun appears.  

The problem is that many students do not do this “backtrack.”  Instead, students simply re-read the phrase and try to figure out meaning or start reading at the phrase and continue for several lines AFTER, becoming more and more confused.  Look at the following example:

The universe would be fundamentally incomprehensible were it not fundamentally simple, were it not made up of a few elementary components.  And because the Greeks believed that at bottom the universe must be comprehensible, they postulated the atomic nature of matter.  In this century we have finally demonstrated through systematic experiment that the universe is indeed made up of elementary particles, but the particles are understood in a sense that involves modes of description and physical domains entirely outside those accessible to the ancient Greeks.  This story, stretching over two millennia, should be understood to mean that more than faith, more than pure reason is involved in science.  

What is the referent to “this story”? Students need to recognize this in order to answer the following question:

According to the author, science is primarily characterized by its assumption that the world is fundamentally

  1. Infinite and irreducible
  2. Forbidding and alienating
  3. Miraculous and mysterious
  4. Changeable and adaptable
  5. Simple and describable

If students simply read, “This story, stretching over two millennia, should be understood to mean that more than faith, more than pure reason is involved in science,” they might understandably pick choice “a” or “c.”  Yet, if they backtracked, contemplating closely what “this story” refers to then they would accurately pick choice “e” – simple and describable.  A strong reader would go back and see that the story is found in the lines, “And because the Greeks believed…bottom of universe must be comprehensible….they postulated…the universe is indeed made up of elementary particles …understood in modes of description.”   

#2 Pronoun Replacement  (I taught pronoun replacement in Lesson #3 and highlighted in the recap.)

When it comes to reading, determining what noun a particular pronoun refers to is key to understanding.  You must connect pronouns back to their referents because without the ability to “track” an idea through a passage, one can easily lose the passage’s focus and argument. 

From Jefferson Davis’s 1861 speech “On Withdrawing from the Union”:

Secession belongs to a different class of remedies.  It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. Therefore, even if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the government, have been bound by her action.  I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think that she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.  I conferred with her people before the act was taken….

Now replace “it” with secession and “she/her” with Mississippi.  A bit easier to comprehend!  

Complex writing relies on pronouns because pronouns make writing smoother and more concise:  you don’t get tangled up in the constant repetition of the same phrase.  In the speech above, Davis eloquently, through the repetition of she/her, conveys his message.  However, without the referent nouns, weaker readers lose the ability to comprehend the author’s message.  Davis’ last “her” appears three sentences later.   Readers need to be cognizant of heavy pronoun usage and be willing to STOP….backtrack…find the noun referent …. re-read with this noun (even if the sentences become clunky.)

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