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Technical Writing: Science Meets Pronouns

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Science Meets Pronouns

That pronouns (he, she, it, this, that) refer to and take
the place of nouns (or names) is well known from grammar lessons.
Less well known is that for over a decade scientists (cognitive
psychologists and linguists) have been studying pronouns too.
They are beginning to understand just how pronoun use makes some
language strategies more efficient that others. And technical
descriptions (by your science students) can benefit from this
research.

Pronouns as Places

In American Sign Language (ASL) a "speaker" will completely
sign the first reference to a proper name, but then point to
some chosen location in the air as if storing the name there.
Subsequent references to that name are then made with "spatial
pronouns," by simply pointing to that specific location where
the name was "placed" (a trick that linguists call "using space
to express coreference"). Suppose other places are also
intellectually associated with the name (such as "mother" and
"kitchen"). Response-time studies show that ASL users respond
faster to (spatial) pronouns than to repeated signing of the
original name, and that response times regarding other associated
places are undisturbed by this shortcut (one example study is
K. Emmorey and B. Falgier, "Conceptual locations and pronominal
reference in American Sign Language," Journal of Psycholinguistic
Research, July 2004, 33(4), 321-331).

Viewing pronouns as places makes them very like variables
in computer programs: a storage location for easy access to the
value currently parked there. Laboratory research suggests that
in the human brain there is a "virtual space" aspect to all
pronoun use, spoken as well as signed. Functional MRI brain
scans by Amit Almor and his team at the University of South
Carolina, for example, show that repeated uses of a name ("Susan
likes animals. Susan gave a hampster to Jane...") generate
separate representations for each use, which the brain stores
and consolidates in ways analogous to managing spatial
information. Using pronouns instead of repeated names ("Susan
likes animals. She gave a hampster to Jane...") seems to reduce
the burden of processing these extra (pseudo-)spatial references
by cross-indexing them. So pronouns help the brain manage
spatial memory, a scarce resource, more efficiently during
language use; they may have developed just to fill this role.
Pronouns thus appear to serve as cognitive-efficiency boosters
for discourse (Amit Almor, et al., "What is in a name? Spatial
brain circuits are used to track discourse reference,"
NeuroReport, August 6, 2007, 18(2), 1215-1219).

Pronouns in Technical Descriptions

All of these pronoun findings are relevant when your students
plan, revise, or reconstruct technical descriptions. Indeed, students
can apply such scientific research to write more effectively
about science topics.

Consider this simple case:
Paper-clip wire is a 1-mm-diameter steel cylinder.
Paper-clip-wire is 10 cm long.
Paper-clip wire bends easily but remains stiff.
This not only sounds clunky but, based on the foregoing evidence,
unduly burdens the reader's brain. An alternative draft that
incorporates two pronouns
Paper-clip wire is a 1-mm-diameter steel cylinder
THAT is 10 cm long.
IT bends easily but remains stiff.
reads better and promotes smoother linguistic processing too.
As long as the antecedents remain clear ('that' and 'it' here
both refer to 'paper-clip wire'), such pronoun use provides
a trail of linguistic breadcrumbs that connects this text chunk
into a unified cognitive bundle, rather than leaving three
isolated claims for the brain to store and process separately.

This is a very practical insight. With a little practice,
framed perhaps by text reconstruction or revision exercises
such as those explained at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysis3d.html
your students can learn to use pronouns to strengthen their
line of argument across paragraphs or pages of technical
desciption. And the ASL case of spatial pronouns can graphically
remind students that pronouns help readers not because of some
mysterious literary magic but because they apply research-based
findings to improve text design.

I am sure the idea that their astute use of pronouns can
actually reduce the cognitive burden of what they write will
seem surprising to many high-school students. But as psychology
researcher Jessica Love points out, "[this is an] empirical
question. Send in the psycholinguists" (J. Love, "They get
to me," American Scholar, Spring 2010, 79(2), 71, online at
www.theamericanscholar.org/they-get-to-me).

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