Writing for Business - A Whatis.com Blog

May 10 2012   2:18PM GMT

Bad business: What’s wrong with this sentence?

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

What’s wrong with the following sentence?

ROI conflicts with the triple bottom line, so the business sometimes neglects  it.

Can you tell what the owners are neglecting in that sentence? Are you sure?

What if we put it in the opposite order? Is it any clearer if we say “The triple bottom line conflicts with ROI, so the business sometimes neglects it”?

No, there’s no way to tell, whichever way the sentence is written. We might assume that the business owner will value a fast return on investment before all else but that’s just our cynicism talking — the sentence doesn’t say that. That problem is known in grammar circles as “ambiguous pronoun reference.”

To make sentences like that one clear, you’ll usually have to use a noun rather than a pronoun or add more information.

Here are a few examples:

ROI conflicts with the triple bottom line, so the business owners sometimes neglect attending to their 3BL.

The triple bottom line conflicts with ROI, so the business owners sometimes neglect attending to their 3BL.

The triple bottom line conflicts with ROI, so the business owners sometimes have to explain the importance of sustainability to their shareholders.

ROI conflicts with the triple bottom line, so the business owners sometimes have to explain the importance of sustainability to their shareholders.

***

See, it doesn’t matter which order the conflicting elements are in. We just have to make sure that it’s clear which antecedent we’re referring to.

Pen and Page offers more information about ambiguous pronoun references.

Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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