Last year I got inaugurated into a club I had never planned to be a part of: the quasi-homeschooling mom responsible for her kids’s remote learning. Then, this year, we suddenly had school closures before the teachers had worked through the new remote learning approach with our kids. It’s been a trial by fire. But the fun thing (for me at least) is that I get to walk through grammar lessons with my son, Timo. He’s in third grade. And the more time I spend helping him, the more I think about you, my wonderful writer friend. But why? How do you and my third-grade child connect? Well, a lot of the grammar stuff he is learning right now is the stuff I had to unlearn when I went through editing school. Let me show you what I mean.
What They Teach in School About Pronouns
This is one of the sentences Timo had to rewrite today. The instructions said to replace the bold word with the correct pronoun.
Bill helped Martin with his math homework.
The “correct” answer the teacher was looking for was, “Bill helped him with his math homework.”
In my grammar lab course, we had what felt like a thousand examples just like the “correct” sentence you see above that we had to rewrite. Let’s look at that sentence and ask a question that helps us understand whether it is confusing to the reader.
Which homework did Bill help with? His own, or the homework of the mystery him? The problem is that the “corrected” sentence runs into a problem that most writers encounter: vague language.
Why Vague Language is Bad
If I were to correct the original sentence “Bill helped Martin with his math homework” I would change it to this: Bill helped Martin with Martin’s math homework. If I found this sentence in a manuscript, I would query the author to clarify. “AU: Does Bill help with Martin’s homework? If yes, clarify to avoid vague language.”
So why did Timo’s teacher have him add a pronoun if it further contributed the confusion inside of the sentence? Because, the teacher is trying to teach him to avoid unnecessary repetition of proper nouns. This is a worthwhile lesson. And this is the simplest way to teach my son how to avoid using proper nouns again when a pronoun would work just fine. But, in order to get my son to understand when vague language presents itself in this way, I have to unteach him this idea later.
Once he can understand that he should avoid repeating proper nouns if he doesn’t need them, but in this case, he needs them so he knows whose homework is being helped. Unfortunately, grammar teachers don’t really bother to unteach these lessons when kids get older and turn into adults. And then it becomes my job as a copyeditor (which I don’t mind at all).
Why You Need to Unlearn This Lesson
The thing is, I’d rather be spending my copyediting energy on more nuanced things. If you already know how to avoid vague language as a writer, you don’t need me to police that issue for you, and I can spend my time really making your manuscript shine. But no one bothered to unteach this lesson to you after you cemented it into your head in third grade. That’s why I created this article, to help you understand that it’s not always beneficial to replace proper nouns with pronouns.
When you have two women in a sentence, use their names. Two men, the same. That way you don’t end up with vague language that can imply multiple meanings and, in turn, confuses the reader. Confused readers always stop reading. And now, you have unlearned the lesson that contributed to you using vague language.
Way to go and happy writing!