High Stakes Pronouns

As I’m sure you know, pronouns serve a key function in written communication. Because they have the power to stand in for nouns, they add remarkable ease and convenience to our everyday discourse.

Just to review – in case it has been a while since you diagrammed sentences in middle school English class – here is a list of common pronouns:

I, me, you, he, she, him, her, it, we, us, they, them, who, whom, that, which, this, his, her, its, their, our, your, my

Don’t forget indefinite pronouns, like:

everybody, anything, each, either, nobody, no one, anyone, everyone, everything, nothing, somebody, something, someone, anybody

(We won’t be dealing with indefinite pronouns in this post, however.)

Pronouns are humble little words, but they have great power. Without pronouns, we’d all have to speak and write in a stilted, repetitive manner: Loren would have to use Loren’s name every time Loren wanted to refer to Loren. Loren’s readers would soon grow tired of reading Loren’s name, no doubt. Pronouns give Loren and Loren’s readers more options, because using pronouns Loren can communicate to Loren’s readers without Loren having to repeat “Loren” so many times.

Okay, enough of that. You see what I mean, I hope. A world without pronouns would be a world full of bloated paragraphs instead of sleek sentences. No one would spend time reading blogs for fun, that’s for sure.

What I want to think about today, however, is not merely the importance of pronouns. I want to explore certain pronouns’ potential impact on readers, using blog writers and readers as an example.

1. Posts that primarily use first-person singular pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “my” present things from the blogger’s perspective alone. When used in passing, these phrases have a disarming humility, as in “these ideas may not work for everyone, but this is what worked for me.”

When a post uses first-person singular more consistently, it’s usually in the context of a personal narrative. Posts that employ this perspective vary widely in success: they can be brilliantly funny and instructive, or they can be banal and uncomfortably confessional.

The best bloggers seem to sprinkle their posts with references to their lives while keeping the majority of the post focused on offering material that their readers can use. A judicious use of personal details makes for a memorable post: a great example is J.D.’s Get Rich Slowly (a blog which I highly recommend, both for its solid personal finance advice and for its grammatically correct title).

2. Some posts use “we,” “us,” and “our” – also first-person pronouns, but these are plural. Bloggers often use “we” to couch generalized statements about modern life, clutter, productivity…any pre-existing condition on which their post will build. For example, a blog post might begin, “even though we know that clutter impedes productivity,” or “each of us wants to be appreciated more at work.”

This strategy is riskier than it appears: for it to succeed, the blog readers must share the writer’s assumption. Those readers who do not already agree that clutter impedes productivity or that everyone wants to be appreciated more at work are excluded from the post’s audience by virtue of that pronoun. Those readers are not part of the “we” the blogger is addressing.

I am not suggesting that bloggers stop using “we.” That would be, if not impossible, certainly inconvenient. But the best writers carefully consider the circumstances in which they employ “we.” When they do use it, they truly speak for their readers as well as themselves.

3. A third popular choice when addressing readers is the second-person pronoun “you.” Since life development blogs try to give readers advice they can use, it makes sense to be direct about it. However, writers also use “you” to impose perspective on their readers, as in, “you see clutter around you, but you feel overwhelmed at the sight of it.”

Strangely, this strategy often backfires: instead of anticipating a reader’s viewpoint, it may make the reader feel as if the writer has misunderstood the reader’s perspective. If a reader feels like the writer “doesn’t get it” or that “the situation described here doesn’t apply to me,” the reader loses interest in that article and, maybe, that blog.

Generally speaking, the less presumptive a writer’s use of “you,” the better. On one hand, many readers of life development, productivity, and organization blogs love to read lifehacks and how-tos. On the other hand, most readers don’t want to be spoken for. The beauty of blogging lies in its ability to build a community in which every participant can speak for himself or herself.

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