Thursday, March 29, 2012

More picky stuff about pronouns

I was complaining to T about the weirdnesses of the interface in my online classroom, and wrote this (it's in a grumpy email, so don't expect felicitous prose):
If you hit "save," your discussion post disappears, goes off never to be found again. (Really. NO ONE knows how to retrieve them.) 
My fingers slowed and halted, as if they knew before my brain did that something was wrong. And yes, when I went back and re-read, I realized I had a pronoun referent problem! The pronoun "them" is plural and should refer back to a plural noun. But there is none.

This is the sort of picky things we need to notice. It's a very common mistake, easily fixed. Yeah, yeah, the reader will figure out what I mean, but that's no excuse for letting this slide without correction, especially since the correction is so quick.
BUT... I'm not going to replace "them" with the singular counterpart "it." Why not? Well, thanks for asking. "It" is an ugly little word, and can refer to something specific (the post) or something not quite a noun (hitting save, for example-- the process, the disaster, whatever). Or nothing at all, as in "It's raining."

Whenever the pronoun reference isn't immediately clear, I consider what noun would be more clear. And in this case, "them" actually would refer to something not quite there in the previous sentence. "The post" exists, you see, in two incarnations:
1. The post that is typed in.
2. The post that is saved.
Same post, but it's like the child and the man... same person, not the same thing. So I thought here, just to make clear, I'd state the noun. It's efficient and clarifies, while perhaps reinforcing the lostness I want to convey:
If you hit "save," your discussion post disappears, goes off never to be found again. (Really. NO ONE knows how to retrieve a saved post.)

I know, picky picky, but I like to be precise, especially when emailing Theresa, who will notice if I'm not!

(You know, I had that last as a sentence frag-- will blog about that maybe later.)



green_knight said...

I'm good with your original: first you describe the immediate action - you hit post and it goes; the paranthesis deals with a generic status (nobody knows how to retrieve them - them being understood as the results of the aforementioned action.)

The rewrite has save/saved and two posts; and I find the repetition clunkier than the mismatched pronouns.

If I had to rewrite it, I'd make it:

(Really. Even the techs are baffled.)

[My guess is that there's a 'drafts' feature hiding somewhere...]

R. E. Hunter said...

I definitely use sentence fragments on a semi-regular basis. Just for the emphasis it lends. Might not be good grammar, but it's part of my writing voice.

Edittorrent said...

"Them" though should refer to a specific plural noun. No way of getting around it. We can mentally figure out what "them" meeans, but... but the reader shouldn't have to figure it out, anymore than the user should do the work the interface creators should do.

green_knight said...

I would argue that the antedecent to 'them' was implied rather than explicitly stated, but it's clear what is meant, and there's no competing 'they' that could be confused. If a reader asks themselves 'what cannot be retrieved' the answer is clear: the posts that vanish when you hit save. You could argue that the _first_ part of the sentence is badly written, because it refers to a habitual action using the singular, but the 'if' appears to be merely a continuum. You could just as well have said 'every time you write a post and hit save, it disappears. These posts cannot be retrieved.' and very few peope would bat an eyelid at that.

the reader shouldn't have to figure it out

While I'm all for clarity - particularly with my copy editor's hat on - I also feel that writers and editors sometimes worry *too* much about grammar and about making _everything_ as easy as possible. This doesn't always serve their prose. And it's entirely an individual call, so I'm not saying that you're wrong (you're right, readers should't stumble and look at sentences and go 'hang on, what does this mean') but we disagree about the degree of difficulty this sentence poses to the intended readership.