Pronoun

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In quizbowl, a pronoun is a word or phrase within a question that explicitly refers to the answer and signals the type of information that the answer is seeking. A pronoun can be likened to a signpost that points the way to the answer, or thought of as a placeholder that substitutes for the answer.

Good pronoun usage is essential to clear, fair quizbowl questions. It is good practice for every sentence or line of a question to contain a full pronoun, and it is vital for a full pronoun to appear early in the first sentence of all tossups.

Explanation

In modern quizbowl, a full pronoun is typically formed by using the word "this" or "these" followed by the general category of the answer (e.g. "this composer," "these creatures").

For example, consider the sentence In a novel titled for one of these animals, the protagonist claims that “prime numbers are like life,” explaining why they are used to number the book’s chapters (from 2019 EFT). The phrase "these animals" functions as a pronoun in the quizbowl sense and indicates that the answer is an animal (namely, dog), while the word "they" functions as a pronoun only in the colloquial English sense but not in the quizbowl sense (and anyhow, its antecedent is "prime numbers" and not "these animals").

It is common to use short pronouns such as "he" or "she" (instead of "this composer," for example) given that at least one full pronoun is already used earlier in the question.

What to avoid

Phrases that superficially have the same form as a pronoun may cause confusion and should be avoided. For example, in the sentence George Herbert claims that the “immortal” variety of this concept is the “author of this great frame” in one of several poems titled for this concept (from 2018 EFT), the pronoun is "this concept," but the phrase "this great frame" (which is a direct quotation from a poem) can unintentionally throw players off because the words "this" and "these" almost always signal a pronoun in the quizbowl sense (especially in a collocation like "the author of this"), and quizbowl players have become thoroughly accustomed to these circumstances.

Old quizbowl questions often used (exclusively or excessively) incomplete or very general pronouns, such as "he," "she," "it," "they," "one," "ones," or simply "this" or "these" by itself, or even omitted any pronoun entirely. This practice makes it much more difficult to identify what a question is asking for.

Overly general and ambiguous pronouns like "this thing" or "this entity" are typically avoided (unless there is a very good reason). Some style guides prohibit certain pronouns, such as "work," "figure," or "polity" (see Quizbowlese).

Switching between different pronouns merely for the sake of variety ("this nation... this country") is unnecessary because quizbowl questions are to be written more like straightforward technical documents that value clarity, not literary works that value avoiding "clunky" repetition.

Experimenting

Experiments to change pronoun conventions in the modern era of quizbowl have been poorly received, with both players and moderators reporting significant confusion and jarring experiences.

At 2016 HSNCT, phrases like "name this author of Oliver Twist" were replaced with "name the author of Oliver Twist." This change, approved by the editors due one of them lobbying against the perceived "illogicality" of the former construction, was heavily criticized, especially for its poor timing of picking the largest-ever quizbowl tournament to experiment with established conventions (instead of trying a pilot at a much less consequential event).[1][2]

Several question sets have experimented with using gender-neutral pronouns (like singular "they") to point to answers on a specific person: see ARTSEE, Cambridge Open, Oxford Open, 2018 EFT, and isolated parts of other sets.[3]

Etymology

The quizbowl term "pronoun" satisfies a somewhat broad, yet perfectly valid, interpretation of both the ordinary English usage and technical linguistic usage of the term "pronoun." The Oxford Online Dictionary, for example, defines a pronoun as "a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this)."

The term "pronoun" is long-established quizbowl jargon and has been widely used and understood in quizbowl contexts going back to at least the 1980s.[4][5]

Attempts to deprecate the term "pronoun" by people who misguidedly or pedantically believe it to be an incorrect or unintuitive usage, in favor of other words like "cataphor," "designator," "descriptor," "determiner," "identifier," "indicator," "referent," "target word," etc. have not caught on, and ironically many of the proposed alternatives are technically less correct and less intuitive than "pronoun."

Switching terminology at this point would also make it much harder to find historical discourse on this important topic.

  1. https://hsquizbowl.org/forums/viewtopic.php?p=316976#p316976
  2. https://hsquizbowl.org/forums/viewtopic.php?p=317118#p317118
  3. https://hsquizbowl.org/forums/viewtopic.php?p=380829#p380829
  4. https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~quizbowl/newsletters/Buzzer6.html
  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20021028204518/http://www.dpo.uab.edu/~paik/acf/acfguide.html