For many writers, clearing up their use of the pronoun “this” can really improve their writing. “This” is a pronoun—a word used in place of a noun a person, place, or thing. The pronoun “this” derives its meaning from its antecedent—the noun it substitutes for. A pronoun must refer clearly and unmistakably to its antecedent in order for the meaning to be clear. The reference is unclear if it is ambiguous, implied, vague, or indefinite.
Writers may run into difficulty with “this” because the pronoun’s reference is needlessly broad.
More and more often, we are finding ourselves victims of serious crimes. We learn to accept this with minor complaints.1Readers are left wondering, what is it specifically that we learn to accept? To improve clarity, replace the pronoun with a noun
More and more often, we are finding ourselves victims of serious crimes. We learn to accept our fate with minor complaints.Writers are most likely to run into difficulties with “this” when they use “this” as the first word of a sentence.
The voyageurs interacted freely with the Aboriginal peoples and traveled wherever furs and the waterways took them. This gave the voyageurs a great advantage.2In this example, it’s unclear if the voyageurs gained their advantage because of their free interaction, or because of their traveling.
To improve clarity, ask “this what?” when editing your writing, make sure each “this” refers clearly to some specific noun. Don’t leave your reader uncertain.
The voyageurs interacted freely with the Aboriginal peoples and traveled wherever furs and the waterways took them. This freedom and mobility gave the voyageurs a great advantage.
1. Example taken from Fowler, H. Ramsay, Jane E. Aaron, and Murray McArthur. The Little Brown Handbook. 4th ed. Toronto: Pearson, 2005: 289.
2. Example taken from Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference. 4th ed. New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 1999: 192.