A Word, Please: Clear up those antecedents

December 10, 2013|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

Randy in Orange County wrote recently to ask about the following passage, which he came across in a newspaper article: "Pat Haden didn't fire Kiffin. He fired himself."

Randy found this troubling. "What does this technically mean? Who fired himself? Who is out of a job? Haden or Kiffin?"

In fact, Randy knew the answers to these questions before he read the article. But the passage raised some larger issues and could even suggest an unfortunate trend.


"It seems that more and more I'm running into troubling sentences and their pronoun usage," Randy wrote. "I see a lot of sentences where it seems the writer simply relies on me to intuit who or what the pronouns refer to by the context of the sentence. In other words, I should 'know what the writer means' — pay no attention to what the sentence really says."

Did you hear it? A squeaking noise? That was my soapbox skidding across the floor as Randy was placing it at my feet. Now I'll hoist myself up, take a deep breath and bellow a refrain all too familiar to people who know me. Here it is:

Writers and editors: You work for the reader. The reader doesn't work for you. It's not the reader's job to figure out what you were trying to say. It's your job to know how to say it. Effectively and efficiently.

This is the same soapbox I get on when I rant against semicolons. Too often, semicolons serve no purpose other than to show off — at the reader's expense — that the writer knows how to use semicolons. They create long, cumbersome, hard-to-digest sentences that would have been more palatable had the writer never heard of a semicolon.

This is the same soapbox I get on to talk about initials inserted in parentheses, as in: "The National Assn. of Auto Mechanics and Body Repairers (NAAMBR) and the Consortium of Car Salespeople and Leasing Professionals (CCSLP) worked with members of the Improved Automotive Business Bureau (IABB) and the Bay Area Regional Dealers and Detailers Committee (BARDDC)."

See all those letters crammed between parentheses? They're the writer's way of telling the reader: "As you trudge through this speed-bump-ridden sentence, you must memorize all these initials because some may come up later in the article, even though others won't, and I refuse to find a more reader-friendly way to recall to you these organizations."

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