Us and them — how pronouns can confuse and separate

Pronouns are words that stand for nouns. They include words such as ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘these’, ‘they’, and ‘which’. Pronouns can be very useful, but they can also confuse readers, and even send unintended messages. The way writers use pronouns has power.

Pronouns can help readers understand your main messages

The pronoun and the noun it refers to must agree in number and kind. When using pronouns, make sure each pronoun clearly points back to the word it replaces.

For example, consider the pronouns in this paragraph:

We must approve edits to the Ministerial briefing by 5pm Wednesday. After we review them, Shana will send it to the leadership team for final approval. This allows them to decide whether it’s ready to send to the Minister. The Minister’s feedback will help them refine their editing processes to it.

This example reflects how writing can quickly become confusing if you don’t periodically remind your reader which word each pronoun replaces. You may know what word the pronoun stands for, but your readers may not. Always ask yourself what you can do as a writer to help readers easily understand your main messages.

Pronoun use in two newspapers’ coverage of homelessness

Used thoughtlessly, pronouns can confuse readers, and even send negative messages.

I discovered the power of pronouns to send negative messages when I researched the news coverage of homeless people in the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor for my doctoral dissertation. My research compared how the two newspapers portrayed homeless people in their hard news and features stories over selected time periods in 1986, 1996, and 2001.

Image, A homeless Big Issue seller selling magazines in the rain.

Publications such as Britain’s Big Issue have tried to give homeless people a voice in the media. Image by Ben Ingram / CC BY-SA

Among my key findings, I discovered differences in how reporters used pronouns to refer to homeless people and officials such as the police. For example, reporters tended to identify lawyers, police, politicians, and charity representatives by first and last name.

In contrast, reporters usually didn’t name homeless people. They instead used pronouns (‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘them’). Sometimes the reporters used the homeless person’s first name, but this was extremely rare.

Reporters from both newspapers also referred to homeless people by using words called ‘non-individualistic social categories’. These categories include generic words and phrases such as ‘panhandlers’, ‘street people’, ‘homeless people’, ‘wild life’, ‘vandals’, ‘mentally disturbed vagrants’, ‘the poor and underprivileged’, ‘downtrodden’, ‘mentally ill’, and ‘transients’.

How we use pronouns can send powerful messages to readers

I used my research findings to argue that reporters’ use of pronouns and generic categories, rather than names, reflects homeless people’s lack of social and political power in society.

For example, the generic social categories almost always portrayed homeless people as being dirty or wild. These adjectives set them apart from people who are successfully integrated into society because they follow social norms. People who follow social norms bathe, have jobs, and don’t have emotional outbursts on the street.

Image, Quotation: The next time you see someone out on the street, don't pass them by. Say hello, ask how they're doing, get them something to eat. Just tell them that you care. Tell them that they are human beings. And I think that's what I would ask of anyone. Mitch Snyder, 1943 to 1990.

Mitch Snyder was an American advocate for homeless people in the 1980s. Image by David / CC BY

In their research on American television news coverage of homelessness, Richard Campbell, professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio, and Jimmie L Reeves, associate professor of electronic media and communications at Texas Tech University, found that police, academics, and journalists are both named and usually speak for homeless people in news reports.

Campbell and Reeves argue that the officials’ names, opinions, and professional roles are valued more than those of people who live on the margins of society.*  In their analysis of American television news reports about a homeless woman, Joyce Brown, they found that reporters used pronouns to distance reporters and viewers from homeless people.

They argue that Dan Rather, a former CBS news presenter, uses pronouns such as ‘we’ to refer to himself and his viewers. His strategic use of pronouns ‘locates the homeless in the realm of the “other”, the “not us”, “them”: We call them the homeless. They call the streets their home.’

Building on Campbell and Reeves’ research, my dissertation argued that such pronoun use and naming practices allow officials to control public knowledge about homelessness. They enforce laws, write legislation, speak at press conferences, and, like Dan Rather, give official interpretations of events.

Research on media coverage is needed in New Zealand

I plan to extend my research to look at news coverage of homelessness in New Zealand. The research is needed as Radio New Zealand, the New Zealand Herald, and other media outlets heavily cover the country’s rising level of homelessness.

I’m very curious about what I’ll discover. My previous research of homelessness coverage in Britain and Ireland indicates that journalists there similarly don’t name homeless people, and they use pronouns to distance homeless people from ‘us’.

Take a second look at your pronouns

Your use of pronouns in business documents may not have such negative implications as the homelessness coverage, but remember that pronouns have power.

When used effectively, pronouns can help your readers quickly skim documents for main messages. Pronouns also help you avoid repetition, and improve flow.

But remember to take a second look at your pronouns. Pronouns can potentially confuse readers and even send unintended messages. These are good reminders for us to always be mindful of how we use language.

*Campbell, R, and J L Reeves. ‘Covering the homeless: The Joyce Brown story’. Critical Studies in Media Communication 6, no. 1 (March 1989): 21–42.

2 responses to “Us and them — how pronouns can confuse and separate”

  1. Robyn Walshe says:

    A very insightful and informative piece. Thank you for sharing this highly relevant perspective on pronouns and their use. I look forward to seeing more on how NZ is ‘performing’ in this space!

  2. Mike Dooley says:

    Thank you for the excellent blog. I’ll share it!

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