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Technical Writing: Science Meets Pronouns

Technical Writing: Science Meets Pronouns

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. 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 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

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