Antecedents, synonyms - do you follow me?

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One of the lessons of experience as an editor is how small an error it takes to damage the credibility of a piece of writing.

There's prose, for instance, where the sentences don't hang together as smoothly as they should because they're full of pronouns and other words that refer to concepts the writer has failed to introduce properly.

My colleagues and I have been kicking around a term for this: indeterminate antecedent syndrome (hereinafter IAS). For example: "In the run-up to the French elections, politicians there are very nervous about the blue-collar vote."

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With just a slight tweak, this can be turned into "the run-up to the elections in France." This flows better, because it provides a solid referent to hook "there" onto - a prepositional phrase rather than just an adjective.

At the level of meaning, of course, "French elections" and "elections in France" are the same thing. The reader can generally connect the dots in a situation like this - but how much better if the dots are already connected by the writer.

In grammar, an antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause to which a pronoun refers. Pronouns are great savers of time and space, but they need clear antecedents.

An example: "The defense secretary followed military advice in advising the White House to purchase a herd of Alpine elephants for use in drug interdiction in South America. They recommended the pachyderms as especially well suited to Andean terrain."

"They" refers not to the elephants, but to the military brass. They haven't been properly introduced, though. They're sneaked in through the side door of an adjectival construction, as in "the French elections" above. We're better off with "The defense secretary followed the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," or some such.

Pachyderms, by the way, include hippos and rhinos. But the term is often used as another name for "elephant," as sports writers call the Yankees "the Bronx Bombers."

This reach for a synonym is almost second nature for many writers. As I composed the sentence above about the secretary of defense, "pachyderm" just popped out. This phenomenon is a frequent companion of IAS.

Sometimes both occur in the same sentence, as in (brace yourself): "In the run-up to the French elections, politicians in the European country are worried about the blue-collar vote."

"In the European country?" We have to explain that? But synonyms can give some words breathing room - words that are like accent colors (chartreuse? Chinese red?) that you might use just once or maybe twice in a piece. Other words, though, are simply too "beige" to need synonyms. They're functional neutrals that just fit in.

The counsel from my corner: Try not to build on concepts you haven't properly introduced, and don't strain for synonyms. And unless you really want to make a point, don't say "pachyderm" twice in the same piece.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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