Pronouns are useful referents (i.e. the thing doing the referring) to avoid repetition of words (usually nouns). Although personal pronouns (he, she, and I, in particular) are infrequent in medical writing, the neutral ‘it’ and the demonstrative pronouns (singular, ‘this and that’; plural, ‘these and those’) are common. However, the personal pronoun ‘it’ and the demonstrative pronouns invariably cause us to backtrack: to refer back to previous textual information (an antecedent) to find out what the pronoun is replacing. Backtracking impedes immediate comprehension of the text, especially when the antecedent is an entire sentence.
There are techniques for eliminating the personal pronoun ‘it’ and the demonstrative pronouns. These techniques may be semantic, syntactic, or both. Eliminating the neutral and demonstrative pronouns will help the reader by improving clarity, thereby eliminating a distraction to immediate comprehension.
There are fourmain techniques for eliminating personal and demonstrative pronouns: semantic revision, single syntactic unit revision, double syntactic unit revision, and syntactic position revision. In the first of three articles on backtracking pronouns, we examine semantic revision, i.e. replacement of pronouns by words with explicit reference to an antecedent. The examples are from graduate student writing in the course ‘Systematic research writing’.