Monday, September 15, 2008

The Big Bad They

Pronouns—we don’t think about them too often, though we use them profusely. Without them, however, the previous sentence might look something like this: Pronouns—Katie C. and the readers of Katie C. don’t think about pronouns too often, though Katie C. and the readers of Katie C. use pronouns profusely. Sure, this second sentence has a compelling rhythm, and some poets might laud the use of repetition, but it’s not practical. For brevity’s sake, pronouns are necessary.

So, why should we think about pronouns? In this age of sound bytes, texting, and political strife, context and precision become more and more important. A recent interview aired on NPR included audio of a woman lamenting how “they” would keep a close watch on Barack Obama if he were to be elected president. Now, who could this mysterious “they” be? The Republicans? The religious right? The Iranian government? In The X-Files, “they” are aliens. In James Bond movies, “they” are usually Russians. And if we’re talking about indie bands from the late-80’s, well, “They” Might be Giants.

Context becomes key to unlocking this pronoun. If I told you this woman was an African-American, that info might help. And if I included the story of her experience as a member of the only black family in a newly-integrated, racially hostile white suburb during the early 60’s, you would be much closer to the answer. So what if I added previous audio, where a white gentleman insisted that his race afforded him no privileges and a white woman insisted she just couldn’t trust Obama? Think you know it now?

Serious mistakes can be made when a pronoun is taken out of its context. The wrong person can be insulted or blamed, whether in an intimate text from one friend to another, or in a larger public arena, such as political races or reality T.V. shows. Of course, it is not practical to forgo the use of pronouns altogether—this has backfired more than it has helped. Remember President Clinton insisting that he did not have sex with “that woman, Monica Lewinsky”? To paraphrase Shakespeare, the president doth protest too much.

Pronoun use is both natural and necessary. Without it, we would sound silly, stilted, and maybe even untrustworthy. But we must remember to read a pronoun in its proper context. Otherwise, we face the possibility of misinterpretation. That woman on NPR, for instance—when asked who “they” were, she named “the white system.” Without context, “they” could have been anyone: the right, the Russians, even the black community. Let’s insist on context for our pronouns, let’s demand the full story. Without precision, we will remain in the dark. With it, we will gain knowledge, understanding, and the power to thwart those manipulators of language and minions of misinformation that threaten to corrupt the pronoun.

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