“If raw milk does not agree with your baby, boil it.”

Posted on 23/11/2015 · Posted in Writing tips

Is it just me, or is there something odd  about this sentence?

One of our most important jobs when we write is to convey our message to our audience as clearly and coherently as possible. In the case of the raw milk and the baby, common sense tells us that it must be the milk that has to be boiled and not the baby, but in many cases audiences simply cannot work out for themselves what a writer meant to say.

Pronouns, such as it in the above sentence, and he, she, they, this, that, those, or which, should refer to specific nouns unambiguously. Otherwise, we end up with a faulty pronoun reference that makes a sentence vague, confusing and grammatically incorrect (and, sometimes, way too entertaining).

Let us salvage a few cases of vague and confusing pronouns:

Take the radio out of the car and fix it.

What needs to be fixed – the radio or the car?

Revision 1: The radio must be fixed. Take it out of the car.

Revision 2: The car must be fixed. Remove the radio before you take the car to the garage.

The supervisors told the workers that they would receive a bonus.

Who are receiving the bonus – the supervisors or the workers?

Revision 1:

The supervisors had good news for the workers. All of them would receive bonuses.

Revision 2:

The supervisors informed the workers that management has decided to give bonuses to all supervisors.

The bottle of orange juice is empty, but we all had enough of it anyway.

What did we have enough of – the bottle or the juice in the bottle?

Revision:

The bottle of orange juice is empty, but we all had enough juice anyway.

The treaty provided a peaceful way to settle international disputes. This was an important step forward for all nations.

What does “this” refer to – the treaty or to the peaceful way of settling disputes?

Revision:

The signing of the agreement marked an important step forward… or This method of resolving conflicts was an important step forward…

The moral of the story: Keep your pronouns in check when you are writing, and pay special attention to them when you revise your writing – you would, afterall, not want to advise anyone to “boil a baby”…