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Posts Tagged ‘this’

The Ambiguous “This”

One very useful feature of the English language is that you can refer to extremely complex ideas with a simple four-letter word: “this.” In academic writing especially, “this” is a handy word because it allows you to create a shorthand version of what might otherwise take you five, ten, or twenty (or, heaven forbid, even more) words to say. However, the word “this” is also notorious for creating ambiguity, which is why this post explains “the ambiguous ‘this’” and how to avoid it.

Basically, the source of confusion is that readers sometimes cannot tell what the pronoun “this” is referring to. Consider the following sentence:

This is a delicious sandwich.

In this case, the pronoun “this” refers to the sandwich that the speaker is holding, eating, or pointing to; there is nothing else that “this” could refer to, and so the sentence makes perfect sense. But what if the pronoun’s referent was not so obvious?

This is delicious.

In this second sentence, the pronoun “this” is suddenly less clear. Unless we can see what the speaker is holding or pointing to, we cannot know if the speaker is referring to a sandwich, a glass of lemonade, or a bowl of pasta.

Now, in academic writing, the words and concepts that “this” stands in for tend to be much more complicated than an everyday sandwich. Consider the following example:

Children under the age of 7 tend to interpret comments made by others as being directed towards them, whereas older children are better able to differentiate between self-directed and others-directed communication. This can lead to frustration among educators.

In the above example, the pronoun “this” is ambiguous because it can refer to at least three things from the previous sentence: how children under the age of 7 interpret comments, how older children interpret comments, or the difference between how these groups of children interpret comments. To resolve this ambiguity, you can simply use the word “this” as a determiner rather than a pronoun. In other words, you are answering the question, “this what?” For instance:

This difference in communication styles can lead to frustration among educators.

In this revised version, “this” is simply a determiner which precedes the more specific phrase, “difference in communication styles.” By adding a specific referent to the previous sentence rather than leaving “this” to stand on its own, the new version avoids any ambiguity.

Remember, then, that if think you might be plaguing your reader with the dreaded ambiguous “this,” just answer the question, “this what?”