Avoiding Vague Pronouns in Your Research Article

  • Vague pronouns can be confusing to readers.
  • Being specific in your writing is a good way to avoid readers being confused.
More Languages
This article is available in: English 中文

A pronoun is a word that is used as a replacement or substitution for a noun. Commonly used pronouns include I, we, they, he, she, it, they, these, those, who, and what.

Pronouns are frequently used in academic writing, but the use of ‘vague pronouns’ can be problematic. A pronoun is considered to be vague when it is difficult to determine what the pronoun refers to (the antecedent). Ambiguity or confusion can occur when demonstrative pronouns, such as ‘this’ or ‘it’ (which have no clear antecedents), are used to begin a sentence.

  • “The concentrations were high and ranged from 13,640 to 17,440 ng/L. This is slightly lower than the highest overall concentrations detected.”

In the second sentence, the word ‘this’ is vague, as it is not immediately clear what the pronoun refers to. Given the context of the preceding sentence, the most likely substitution would be “These concentrations are….” Such a substitution is much more specific and thus eliminates any potential ambiguity or awkwardness.

  • “The National Institute of Child Health has issued warnings about excessive internet use. Unfortunately, it has not been given much attention in the media.”

Here, the pronoun ‘it’ is vague because we do not know whether the pronoun is referring to The National Institute of Child Health or the issue of excessive internet use.

The easiest way to avoid using vague pronouns in your writing is to ensure that you are clear and specific about what you are referring to, which is best accomplished by using demonstrative pronouns as adjectives that modify a more descriptive term (e.g., “This inconsistency” or “These findings”).

We hope that this information will help bring greater clarity to your writing. Please email us with any comments or questions.

Share with your colleagues

Share your work as a preprint and help move science forward

We invite you to share your research with the community by posting it online as a preprint. Our sister company, Research Square, is a trusted preprint platform that lets you get credit for your unpublished research early, increase your citations, and get feedback from the community.

Related Articles

Pronoun Usage

Editing Tip: Using 'That' as a Complementizer

Though we often deal with the word that as a relative pronoun, we rarely talk about its other very common use as a complementizer, wherein... Read More »

Pronoun Usage

Editing Tip: 'Who' and 'Whom'

In a previous post, we discussed when to use the relative pronouns 'that' and 'which' in academic writing. These two terms are used to introduce... Read More »

Pronoun Usage

Editing Tip: 'That' vs. 'Which'

Information (and examples) defining the implications of 'that' and 'which,' plus when to use each. Read More »

Stay up to date

Sign up for early access to AJE Scholar articles, discounts on AJE services, and more