Dis and Dat

I’ve just finished grading my first set of persuasive essays this term. True to form, about two-thirds of them ran into trouble, or exposed the trouble into which they’d run, with an unreferenced demonstrative pronoun, usually “this.” A quick sampling, with identifying markers removed:

  1. Because Character A, who loves him, is not aware of her own potential, she is more desirable to Character B who is able to use this to his own benefit.
  2. Critic X’s ideas are particularly applicable when examining how B participates in indirect narration. This is most clearly seen by comparing the description of Character C from the narrator’s perspective to moment when we are taken inside B’s thoughts.
  3. Character Y’s interactions serve as a red flag to us as readers, warning us that he is not a voice that can be trusted. The most significant moment that demonstrates this is just after Character Z gives her speech.
  4. This norm is informed by years of reading stories and watching movies, all of which possess some kind of character to root for, to feel sorry for, and to idealize as a hero. This was, I believe, the novelist’s point.

The “bogeymen” (per my colleague Geoff Pullum) who taught me would insist that the problem with all these sentences is “faulty pronoun reference”: the lack of antecedent for “this.” But anyone who’s been in this business for any length of time will testify that supplying an antecedent will only waste students’ time and drive the instructor bats. All you have to do, after all, is add the word “fact.” And so you get revisions like “Because Character A is not aware of her own potential, she is more desirable to Character B who is able to use this fact to his own benefit”; and “The most significant moment in the novel that demonstrates this fact is just after Character Z gives her speech.”

More useful—and truer to our project, I think—is to view certain cases of unreferenced “this” as the canary in the coal mine. After all, not all cases are problematic. When one student wrote (more or less), “All of these expectations influence our thoughts on the story, though we are relatively unaware that this is even happening as we read,” we understand perfectly well that “this” refers to the continuing influence of expectations. But in the sentences I’ve listed, the writers turn out to be unsure of exactly what Character B is taking advantage of (Sentence 1); whether the essay is best served by applying Critic X’s idea or dissecting B—’s narration (Sentence 2); whether she wants to focus on plot expectations or untrustworthy narration (Sentence 3); and how to transition between one subtopic and the next (Sentence 4).

The problem is not the pronoun. The pronoun is the placeholder for the problem. A similar puzzle cropped up in the chant of “We built it!” during the Republican convention—the problem was not that “it” seemed to have no antecedent, but that each word of the sentence (“we,” “built,” “it”) opened a new, emotion-packed void. Students often use “this” when they feel the need for demonstration (thus the demonstrative) and have little grasp of their argument or even subject. The piling-on of more little words—“This is most clearly seen when,” “This is due to the fact that”—reveals an even deeper panic.

What to do? Not, I think, to circle the “this” and write “ref!” in the margin, as my bogeymen did. You’ll have only a flurry of “facts” or “truths”—so-called grammar problem solved, thinking problem unaddressed. No, I fear we have to descend into the coal mine, where our students are floundering, trying to unearth an argument and bring it up to the surface. “This” won’t help them, and “ref!” won’t help us help them. The only way out is through.

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