You know, they say…  But who, exactly, are they?

This has come up a bunch recently in prepping clients for big presentations.  It’s a huge problem in writing, and perhaps even more important in speaking.  But what is this?  And it?

The indefinite pronoun.

One of my editors explained to me that a pronoun must first be identified to be of any use.  Much like an abbreviation or acronym, good writers establish the noun before using a pronoun.  In a written paragraph, the rule was simple: name the person before referring to him/her by a pronoun.  Thus, a paragraph should never start with “He said, …” because “he” hasn’t been established.

This (the use of pronouns) is muddled a bit in spoken language.  In conversation, context usually saves the day, but in a one-directional speech or presentation, what is obvious to the presenter can be very confusing to the listener.  Long and complex sentences add to the problem (a tip for another newsletter).


A couple of examples:

  • Blah blah expertise blah blah Big Idea blah blah…  This system…”  What system?  I’ve seen this three times in the last two weeks alone.  You haven’t named your system.  Until this sentence, you haven’t even called it a system.  Maybe it’s clear to you it’s a system, but to the first-time listener, they don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • Our project manager didn’t talk with the site lead and he complained to his boss.”  Who’s doing the complaining? Whose boss received the complaint?
  • After looking at the budget, I think we need to fix the project scope.”  While I love “we,”, this “we” is problematic because it’s unlikely anyone in the audience hears, “I need to get busy fixing the project scope.” We’re going to do it, right?  But who, exactly, is “we”?
  • Another huge offender is “it”.  I scanned the speech of a client and they had the word “it” written 41 times.  It wasn’t that long of a speech.  Oh, and “they” in that sentence is a plural pronoun referring to the one client.  I hate English’s lack of a singular gender-neutral pronoun despite Merriam-Wester hailing the usage of the singular “they” as the word of the year in 2019. . Their (Merriam-Wester’s) word for 2023 was “authentic”, a word that causes more problems in speaking than most any other (word) I (Alan) have run across.

We don’t want this to be an issue for you, so it’s worth your time to look for this when you’re preparing it for that.  Got it?

Words matter.   Pronouns are far too easy to use.  They do clean up speech by shortening references, but they can cause confusion when they are not specific or clearly identified.  Most grammar checkers let pronouns slide and are not much help. I recommend searching your speech text for “they/their”, “it/its” (and it’s), “this” and “that”.  While you’re at it (checking your text), add “just”, “some”, and “really” to your search and find alternatives.  Your listeners will thank you.

Communication Matters.  What are you saying?


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This article was published in the March edition of our monthly speaking tips email newsletter, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today to receive our newsletter and receive our FREE eBook, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.

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