Pronouns are wonderful. No one wants to keep repeating someone’s name or a company’s title over and over if “she” or “it” will do the work. But problems come when the antecedent that the pronoun is replacing is missing, obscure, or ambiguous.
Ask yourself five questions to make sure your judges on appeal know who he, she, or it is.
Is the person, place, or thing explicit?
Lawyers may talk about “the law” or some other abstraction and then refer to “it” when they mean a particular rule or statute. Spelling out the antecedent help readers know what it is.
Is the noun first?
Use the noun before the pronoun. Consider, Defendant Smith narrowly lost the appeal. Because he was afraid of further review, Plaintiff Jones settled. Who was afraid of further review? Does “he” mean Smith or Jones?
Are there multiple nouns?
Problems may arise when there is more than one candidate for he or she. Take a simple example. Jim Doe and John Roe sued the widget company. He then dropped the case. Who dropped it? Doe or Roe? Or say — Jane Doe asked her attorney about an appeal; she then filed a notice of appeal. Does “she” mean Doe or Doe’s attorney? Is the appeal pro se? It is again hard to say.
Are there multiple pronouns?
A similar issue comes up when the same pronoun refers to two or more antecedents. Say, Attorney Smith left his telephone in his car, so Lawyer Jones lent him a phone that was lent to him. The first “him” is Smith and the second “him” is Jones. Or is it?
Is there an apostrophe s?
Lastly, pronouns substitute for nouns, not adjectives. This simple rule becomes tricky with possessive nouns because they function as adjectives. Say — The brief’s table of contents needs proofing, but otherwise it reads well. “It” refers to the table of contents and not the brief. The brief is the adjective. The table of contents is the noun. May need to say, The brief’s table of contents needs proofing, but otherwise the brief reads well.
Kudos to The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, for these tips. The illustrations are mine, so they may not prove the point nearly as well as the manual.
Anyone have other tips on how to avoid pronoun confusion? Please leave a reply or reach me at www.attorneyroberthill.com. Until then, please enjoy the video on pronouns –