Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mind Your Ps (Pronouns, That Is)

Smith struck Jones, injuring his hand.
Did Smith injure Jones’s hand, or did Smith injure his own hand?
Legal writers often overuse pronouns, leading to confusion.   As I’ve said previously, the legal writer’s overall goal should be to make sentences as clear as possible.  Writers who aren’t careful about pronoun use produce unclear sentences.  This lack of clarity often occurs because the pronoun is too far away from the antecedent, or because the writer includes multiple persons or things to which the pronoun might refer.  For example,

The defendant told the judge he was sorry.  He then sat down. 
Did the defendant say “I’m sorry,” or did the defendant tell the judge, “You’re sorry.”  Who sat down?  The judge? The defendant?  You can easily correct ambiguous pronoun use.  In the first example, change “his,” or re-word.

The defendant struck the plaintiff, injuring the plaintiff’s hand.
The defendant injured the plaintiff’s hand when he struck the plaintiff.

There is a similar remedy for the second example:

The defendant said, “I’m sorry,” and then sat down.
The defendant told the judge the defendant was sorry.  The defendant then sat down.

Strive for clarity, even if changing a pronoun makes a sentence slightly more bulky.



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