Pronouns Have to Refer to Something

The Editor just saw this little aphorism quoted as some sort of inspiration for writers:

The first step in blogging is not writing them but reading them.

—Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis is someone who has obviously made a reputation as a journalist. His Wikipedia article is quite detailed, and shows every sign of having been written by Jeff Jarvis, who is an acknowledged expert on the subject.

Nevertheless,  the sentence loses much of its inspiring power by being either badly constructed or incomplete. The first step in blogging is reading what? We don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s not in the sentence.

The problem is that the pronoun them has to refer to something we already know. If I say “You can cook potatoes by boiling them,” the pronoun them stands for “potatoes.”

But there are no plural nouns in the inspiring quotation from Jeff Jarvis, so there can be no “them.”

Of course, a little thinking will tell us what might be missing. What Mr. Jarvis meant to say was probably something like this: “The first step in blogging is not writing blogs but reading them.”

That thought didn’t make it to the written sentence, however. And it may not be Mr. Jarvis’ fault at all. Pronouns can refer to things in previous sentences; it may be that the person who picked this sentence as a nugget of inspiration neglected to give us a previous sentence that would have sorted out the pronouns. It would be perfectly all right if Mr. Jarvis said, “Everyone wants to write blogs these days. But the first step in blogging is not writing them but reading them.” Our brains would automatically take us back to the last plural noun and tell us that “them” means “blogs.”

Without assigning blame, then, let us simply take the sentence as it stands before us for a warning. A pronoun has to refer to something you’ve already put in the reader’s brain.

UPDATE: The Editor has found the original source of the quotation. Now we know where to assign the blame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>