Over in Mi Yodeya Meta, commenting on the proposed Mi Yodeya site scope —

for people who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more

— I mentioned that "I'd replace people with those". When pressed for a reason, I said:

Because (and I don't know the words to explain this right, so bear with me) those is less strong a word. People calls more attention to itself, is more noticeable, and, therefore, pulls more attention away from the more important part of the line. At least, that's my impression.

That is, when you're reading that line, your eye/mind is more likely to skip over those without the word making an impression than over people. Skipping over it is a good thing in this case, since it's not the semantically important part of the line.

You may not, of course, agree with me on that score, but my question is: How should I have described this? Is there a term that style sheets or grammarians or English teachers or linguists or whoever use for such 'strong' words-in-context?

  • I don't see the difference at all in any terms that could be associated with strength or directness. 'People' is slightly more definite than 'those', the latter being a pronoun whose referent happens not to be mentioned yet. It's a minimal stylistic variation that you really shouldn't worry about. If you would say it one way rather than another then, great, thats up to when you write things.
    – Mitch
    Jan 21, 2013 at 22:35
  • Mitch, I didn't mention directness, but what I was trying to get at... hang on, lemme edit the question.
    – msh210
    Jan 21, 2013 at 22:37
  • All: This question needs tagging help, please.
    – msh210
    Jan 21, 2013 at 22:39
  • This is really vague. It might conceivably have some named concept associated with it, but we don't have enough examples or explanation to go on other than your 'feeling'. Sometimes questions like this get lucky and happen to have a corresponding exact concept and label, but so far, this doesn't seem to have one.
    – Mitch
    Jan 21, 2013 at 22:56
  • 2
    @Mitch - maybe not an exact concept or label, but maybe we can help OP find a better way to express that concept. I'm not saying that you've done this, but in general, I've seen a number of questions in the few months of my membership where a comment was made that "no single word exists" but through the synergy of our community, a word or phrase was produced that satisfied the OP. Jan 21, 2013 at 23:15

3 Answers 3


You're right. Nouns of any sort are much stronger than pronouns.

There are thousands and thousands of nouns, so each carries a lot of meaning, to use the Conduit Metaphor. There are only a few pronouns, however, because they don't have any intrinsic meaning, only type codings -- demonstrative, masculine, plural, whatever.

This is what pronouns are for -- to substitute for nouns by leaving an id marker, thereby not requiring us to identify somebody again. That's why pronouns are unstressed and often reduced by loss of (for instance) the /h/ in /hi/: /ɪzi'ðɛɹ/ 'Is he there?'; or the /y/ in /ay/: /amənə'gonaw/ 'I'm going to go now'.

What one wants in a pronoun (as I said in an article about "singular they") is

"... a word that readers can zip over rapidly, with just enough referentiality to point to the proper individual without distracting anyone from what the writer wants them to be thinking about. That’s why we use pronouns instead of full descriptions in the first place."

  • +1, many thanks. But did you mean ego rather than id?
    – msh210
    Jan 21, 2013 at 23:20
  • Also: you used stronger, which I'd used in the question. Should I infer that it's your adjective of choice for this phenomenon?
    – msh210
    Jan 21, 2013 at 23:27
  • 1
    @msh210: Oh, I meant /ay'di/, i.e, ID, identification; like a URL. Sorry. As for strong, it's a metaphor and not my favorite, no; linguists talk about "semantic bleaching", a process where a meaningful word is used as an auxiliary or marker so often that it loses its meaning. Have is a good example; it only means possess a small proportion of the times it appears. But any construction with a pronoun will be more easily interpreted than one with a noun, other things being equal, just because it parses easier. Jan 22, 2013 at 0:34
  • I've searched quite a few articles about adverb abuse in fiction writing, trying to find out why they are considered evil. Every single of them talked about using "strong verbs" instead.
    – SF.
    Jan 22, 2013 at 10:03
  • 1
    Other than that, though, no worries. Mar 18, 2013 at 15:05

You're right that "people" calls attention to itself, and that the pronoun works in this case in a supporting role, serving to let "Jewish law and tradition" be the most important part of the sentence. Pronouns are by definition less assertive than nouns, requiring some referent, whether explicit or implied.

If someone says "John is here, " you know who is here; if they say "He is here, " you have to ask "Who?" unless you already know.


I understand what you mean - "people", in your view and in that context, could be considered more "direct" than if you rephrased it to say, per your example:

for "those" who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more

While "directness" is good for avoiding ambiguousness, it can also be seen as a bit "assertive" or too ""in your face"".

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