Language Quirks in Legal Writing — "This" Without a Clear Antecedent



Recently, a thread on the legal writing professors' listserv discussed students' increasing use of "this" where the word has no clear antecedent.

            A pronoun must have an antecedent - that is, an identifiable noun, phrase, or clause to which it refers.  When a pronoun has no identifiable antecedent, the writing is unclear, as in this example:

            Example (incorrect): The student stood next to the professor holding his umbrella.

            The reference (or antecedent) of his is not clear.

            Here's an example of the use of this without a clear antecedent:

            Example (incorrect): A lawyer should not ask a witness a question without knowing the answer.  This is a common problem in trial practice.

            In this example, this refers neither to a particular noun nor to the whole preceding sentence, which is a piece of advice, not a problem.  This should have an identifiable antecedent, as in these examples:

            Example (correct):  Here is Smith's letter.  Put this in your file for safekeeping.

            This refers to the letter.

            Example (correct):  He wanted her out of his life.  This was his motive for the murder.

            This has an identifiable antecedent, which is the entire preceding sentence.

            When you use the word this, notice whether you can substitute a particular noun, phrase, or clause for this.  If you can't, or if you are in doubt, rewrite the passage.

                                      --The Word Aficionado