The Wily Pronoun

Few parts of speech are as wily and confusing as the humble pronoun. Its function seems so simple — to stand in for one or more nouns — and yet pronouns are the source of more mistakes than any other type of word. Even journeyman writers have trouble with these from time to time.

Why do we need pronouns? The answer is because they are transparent. When you read a pronoun, you don’t even really see the word itself. Your brain subconsciously and immediately substitutes the thing for which the pronoun stands: its referent. Take the first sentence in this paragraph for example. Did you pause to think about who “we” was? Did you even notice the word “we” at all? I’m willing to bet you didn’t. You probably just intuitively understood that I was speaking about myself, you the reader, and other writers like us. That’s a lot of work for a little two-letter word! It slipped all that information into your brain without you even knowing it was there. Pretty cool if you ask me!

Pronouns also help vary the pace and rhythm of writing. Writing the same noun over and over becomes repetitive; it feels like being clubbed over the head with words:

Bob Dole won’t raise taxes. Bob Dole doesn’t believe in higher taxes. That’s just not the kind of man Bob Dole is. (Not an actual quote)

That kind of writing is best left to the politicians. Actual human writers use pronouns. Trouble is, a lot of us use them wrong.

To make sure you’re using the right pronouns, it’s helpful to know the different types and what each is used for. The following overview is adapted from this article. Check it out for a great quick reference.

Personal Pronouns

When you think of pronouns, these are probably the kind you think of first. They stand in for proper and common nouns, and they come in three flavors.

First Person (I, me, we, us):

For a fiction writer, these are mainly used in dialogue or first person narrative. The main tip to remember is not to overuse them. First person stories can quickly get clogged with “I” sentences:

I sat down at the table. I picked up my spoon. I turned to Jared and asked him to pass the salt.

Keep in mind that in first person, the reader always knows who the speaker is. It isn’t necessary to re-anchor them very often.

Also, phrases like “I saw” add narrative distance, and the point of first person is maximum narrative intimacy. To keep your reader inside your POV character’s mind, write “A lamp glowed on the table” instead of “I saw a lamp glowing on the table”

Second Person (you):

In fiction, “you” is typically only seen in dialogue. Novels like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have made successful use of a conversational style, but keep in mind that this is a risk. Any direct communication between a character and a reader necessarily breaks the fourth wall. It should only be done for a very good reason, because by definition it knocks the reader out of the story. Overused, it makes a writer look desperate to get his point across.

Third Person (he, she, it, they, them, etc.):

Far and away the most common pronouns in fiction (even in first person), third person pronouns are actually the most difficult, because you’re almost always going to need several at a time. Unless you’re writing about a single character standing in a void (which sounds awfully boring), your story is going to be filled with people, places and things, and at most one of them will be referred to with something besides a third person pronoun.

Jack picked up the gun. It was heavy in his hand.

Here, “it” and “his” are both third person pronouns, standing in for “the gun” and “Jack’s” respectively. When you’re dealing with one person and one object, things are pretty clear. But the more people and things you throw into the mix, the more slippery those pronouns get:

Before Tom met Jack, he was just an ordinary kid.

Here, “he” could refer to either Tom or Jack. Granted, this is a simple example, and I think it’s pretty clear that “he” refers to Tom (because of an issue I’ll discuss later), but you see how a reader might get confused. It would be much clearer to say “Tom was an ordinary kid before he met Jack.”

The more people, places, and things you involve in a scene, the more nouns you’re going to have to use to keep things clear. Occasionally, this can result in passages that repeat the same noun several times, and it can be conspicuous. The only way to avoid this is to keep as few balls in the air as possible. Simplify scenes when you can. If there are people and objects around that aren’t directly involved with what’s happening, don’t mention them. And if a character is interacting with number of people or objects, try to write sequential actions, not simultaneous ones (more on the difference in this article).

No matter how careful you are, you’re still bound to struggle with this once in a while. It’s worth taking the time to figure out your pronouns, for your reader’s sake. They won’t thank you, they’ll just understand.

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the issue of gender. When referring to unspecified persons (or persons of a non-binary gender), it’s somewhat frowned upon to prefer a single gendered pronoun. In nonfiction (for example, here on this site) the most accepted practice is to vary between masculine and feminine pronouns, and to write around them when possible.

For my part, I tend to favor first and second person, but I try to oscillate back and forth between “he” and “she” when referring to “the writer” or “the reader”. In some cases (especially in my older articles), I even use “they” as a non-gendered pronoun, but that practice is frowned upon by much of the writing community.

Grammar geeks within the LGBT movement have made various attempts to come up with a non-gendered third person pronoun. Some even prefer to be referred to as “they”. Even before LGBT issues were a household topic, writers have posited their own solutions for situations where gender is simply unspecified. None of these efforts have gained traction, and in everyday conversation, “they” seems to be the most commonly accepted solution. Personally, I’m a fan of “they”, since it’s already being used every day. But I acknowledge the reasoning against it: “they” is a plural pronoun, and shouldn’t be used to refer to singular subjects.

This issue will probably be in debate for a long time, and I won’t presume to solve the world’s problems, even ones as minute as this. But I will say that if enough people just keep using “they” in this context, it will eventually become accepted usage. Take that, Grammar Nazis!

…moving on.

Relative Pronouns

A relative pronoun does exactly what it says; it relates a following clause to the rest of the sentence.

The gun that he used to kill President Lincoln has been found.

Relative pronouns basically force entire clauses to function as descriptors. In the above case, “he used to kill President Lincoln” functions as an adjective modifying “the gun”. What you’ll notice right away is the pronoun “that” simply isn’t necessary to understand the sentence:

The gun he used to kill President Lincoln has been found.

This is true of many relative pronouns. Instead of “the man who killed Lincoln”, just say “Lincoln’s killer”. Cutting relative pronouns is one of the main ways I tighten my writing when I edit.

One issue that many writers struggle with is the difference between “who” and “whom”, both of which can be used as relative pronouns. I personally didn’t master this until I was in my thirties. Luckily, it’s actually pretty simple. Anywhere you could use “he”, use “who”. Anywhere you could use “him”, use “whom”.

The man who wrote to me. <=> He wrote to me.
The man to whom I wrote <=> I wrote to him.

“Who” is used to stand for the subject of a verb — the person or thing that does the action. “Whom” is used for the object of the verb — the person or thing being acted upon.

Another issue that trips some people up is the difference between “who’s” and “whose”. We’ll talk a little more about this below, but basically all you need to know is that “who’s” is a contraction for “who is”, whereas “whose” is a possessive pronoun that can also be used as a relative pronoun:

The man whose arm was broken

Here, “whose” relates the idea of the broken arm to “the man”.

Relative pronouns are clutter, more often than not. Make sure they’re needed, or write around them.

Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns are basically like pointing your finger.

Tom grabbed the gun. “Give me that!”

Here, we know “that” refers to the gun. In situations where we know what object is being referred to, demonstrative pronouns work as a shorthand. Use “this” or “these” to refer to things that are close by. Use “that” or “those” to refer to things that are at a distance.

“That” is one of those overused words that trip writers up, perhaps because it can also be used as an adjective (“Give me that gun!”), adverb (“I wouldn’t go that far”), and a conjunction (“she said that she was hungry”). “That” is a complicated issue, best left for another article. For now, just know the pronoun use is one of the acceptable ones.

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns refer to something unspecified. Did you catch that? In that first sentence, “something” is an indefinite pronoun. You probably use these pronouns all the time: “There’s something in your teeth.”, “Somebody is coming.”, “Is anybody there?” “Is everybody coming?”. Indefinite pronouns are nice and transparent, and are unlikely to cause you much trouble. Pronouns are mainly an issue when it’s hard to figure out what is being referred to, But indefinite pronouns aren’t really referring to anything specific, so you’ll never be searching a previous sentence for their referents. Just make sure not to use too many of them, or your writing will seem vague.

Reflexive Pronouns

A reflexive pronoun refers back to the subject of the sentence, indicating that the subject of the verb is also the object.

He shot himself.

Remember, this is all reflexive pronouns do. If you aren’t referring back to the subject of a sentence, don’t use one. Some people misuse the reflexive pronoun “myself” in sentences like “My mom came to pick up Tom and myself”. Because “mom” is the subject, “myself” is incorrect here. For a great look at misuses of “myself”, check out this article.

Interrogative Pronouns

A pronoun is interrogative if it’s used to ask a question.

“Who are you?”
“Whose candy is this?”

Interrogative pronouns are unlikely to trip you up much. Just make sure your verbs are in the right mood and tense, and you’ll be fine.

Possessive Pronouns

Just like possessive nouns, possessive pronouns show ownership or belonging. The main difference, and the thing that trips some people up, is that possessive pronouns never take apostrophes.

I’ll be the first to admit it: it took me years to master the difference between “its” and “it’s”. I got so frustrated with my inability to differentiate that I actually considered getting it tattooed on my wrist. “It’s” is a contraction of “is is”. “Its” is a possessive pronoun.

As mentioned above, “whose” and “who’s” is a similar issue. Just remember; if a pronoun has an apostrophe, it’s a contraction.

There is also the issue of possessive pronouns used before a noun:

Give me my socks.

Here, technically, “my” is an adjective! As confusing as that may sound, I’d be willing to bet you’ve never worried too much about pronouns in this sense. If you know who a thing belongs to, you know which word to use.

***

Despite all the different varieties and uses of pronouns, the problems they cause all tend to fall into one category: vagueness.

In a recent editing project, I came across this passage:

Feedback from friends is valuable if your friends are writers. But they can be tricky to get feedback from.

To whom does “they” refer? Friends? Writers? Oddly enough, the first time I read this sentence, I actually had a split second where I thought “they” referred to “feedback”. Obviously, “they” would be the wrong pronoun in that case, but it alerted me to an interesting fact.

When I read a pronoun in one sentence, I tend to assume that it refers to the subject of a previous sentence. In the above example, “feedback” is the subject of the first sentence, so when I saw a pronoun, that’s where my mind went first.

I might be crazy. But still, I stand by what I told the writer: if you have a sentence where both subject and object are present, and then a following sentence with a pronoun, it’s natural to assume the pronoun refers to the subject. This was the rephrasing I recommended:

Friends are a great source of feedback, especially if your friends are writers. But they can be tricky to get feedback from.

To me, that’s much clearer. That passage went through a few more revisions before we both thought it was perfect, but I made a note of this one because I had never thought about it before.

Remember this example from above?

Before Tom met Jack, he was just an ordinary kid.

I might not change this sentence if it appeared in one of my stories. Because “Tom” is the subject of the verb “met”, I assume that the next pronoun (“he”) refers to him. But I may be the exception in this matter, and the revision I suggested above is definitely clearer:

Tom was an ordinary kid before he met Jack.

Another issue with pronouns is that they grow more vague the more distance you put between them and their referents. Even a single sentence can be too much.

The mountain towered over the treetops. A fierce wind whipped the leaves. Its snowy peak reflected the sunlight.

Obviously, neither the wind nor the leaves could have a snowy peak, so you know that “its” refers to the mountain. But the fact that several nouns appeared between “the mountain” and “its” made it momentarily confusing, didn’t it?

Granted, the confusion isn’t likely to last more than a second, if that long. Any reader can figure out what a pronoun refers to if they give it some thought. But passages like these are speed bumps; they may not knock the reader out of the story, but they certainly impede her progress. In this case, swapping the second two sentences is an easy solution, but it won’t always be that clear. Just try to keep pronouns close to their referents, and keep as few pronouns in play as possible. If there’s even a ghost of a chance a pronoun could refer to more than one thing, try to rephrase.

***

Pronouns seem simple and innocuous until you realize just how many you use, and just how many ways you use them. Misused, they can rob your writing of clarity and frustrate your readers. But they’re a necessary part of prose. They provide transparency, which keeps readers focused on the story, not the words. Use them well, and keep your readers reading.

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 August 01, 2016 at 10:00AM

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