The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

"Its" A Problem

Justice Gorsuch has a pronoun problem. No, not that problem.


In any sentence with multiple subjects, I avoid using pronouns. If two people are referenced, and I use "he," there is no way of know which person is being referenced. Even worse is the word "it" or "its." If a sentence has multiple nouns, there is no way to know which noun is being referenced.

Justice Gorsuch made this error in the first paragraph of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo v. Texas:

In this case, Texas contends that Congress expressly ordained that all of its gaming laws should be treated as surrogate federal law enforceable on the Ysletadel Sur Pueblo Reservation. In the end, however, we find no evidence Congress endowed state law with anything like the power Texas claims. 

Does "its" refer to the laws of Texas or the laws of Congress? Who knows? The next sentence does not answer that question. Rule of thumb: try very hard to avoid using the word "its" in sentences with multiple subjects.