John Larrysson Column: English Errors by Native Speakers
Pronoun confusion

Some words (pronouns), such as he, she, they, etc... refer to someone or some group. They replace another word (noun). The word he might mean Mr. Smith, his son Tom or their pet cat. To understand the sentence one needs to be told to whom the word refers.

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The sentence, He hit the ball. is unhelpful if you are not told who he is. Is he a boy, a teacher or an angry water-buffalo?

The sentences, He hit the ball. and He is very tall. should refer to the same person for both uses of the word he. If the same pronoun refers to different people the sentence is confusing.



The people are very clear. They want people deported immediately, and they want to have the fence built up so that they don't come in. They are tired of seeing their tax dollars spent on people who are here illegally in the United States.



Ms. Bachmann,


Republican Member in the US Congress,

Minnesota's 6th congressional district



< Reuters (August 1 2014) Globe and Mail, Republicans kill funding bill for illegal immigrants, page A9 >


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The word people, is a noun and the plural of person. (The word people is also a verb, to populate a place. It is of French-Latin origin and has largely replaced the English word folk.) However in political speech the word people often is used to refer to the citizens of a country and takes the role of a pronoun. In Ms. Bachmann's first two sentences the word people seems to refer to two different groups. That is unless there is a group of people who want themselves deported (thrown out of the country).

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In the second sentence, the word they appears three times. They want deportations, a fence and to be kept outside. To understand what is meant we need to study the issue enough to know who wants what. If you have to study the issue, there is no point in reading her sentence. The last sentence does describe who they are and who the people are. They are those who pay taxes. The people are those who are in the United States illegally. However the earlier text uses a different meaning for they and people. The result is confusing.

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I will make no comment on this member's politics, however her English is not clear. In any text, or speech, pronouns should refer to the same noun. There should be some means, including context, that will explain to whom the pronoun refers. While we all make mistakes, I expect political leaders to speak clearly in their native language.

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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.


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