The Problem with Pronouns

As far as parts of speech go, pronouns are not too hard to understand. Where a noun is a person, place, or thing (as School House Rock taught us all) a pronoun is a word which is used as a general substitute for a noun (for example Tommy and the dog would be nouns, he and it would be pronouns).

Since we tend to use pronouns so much in speech, people very rarely (I’ve found) have problems using proper pronouns when writing fiction (outside of cases where there is a genderless character, which is a different problem with if it’s proper to use “it”, singular “they”, or some gender-neutral pronoun like “xe”). People know they don’t have to write “Tommy” over and over again in a paragraph. “He” can take over and make things seem a little less cluttered.

No, the most common problem writers come up against with pronouns is using them vaguely. For example:

Tommy looked between himself and John. He was dressed in orange…”

In this case, “he” is used correctly as a pronoun. It is replacing a noun. The problem becomes, which noun is it replacing?

Perhaps it becomes a little clearer as the sentence continues (“He was dressed in orange while Tommy was dressed in…“) but that doesn’t really fix the problem. With that first “he” the reader is now left trying to figure out which “he” is being talked about, and then go back and fit things together at the end of the sentence (“Oh, okay, Tommy’s in green, that means that “he” was John”). Not only can that be annoying, but it starts killing the flow of the story. You want a reader keep moving forward and–hopefully–get sucked into the action. You don’t want them reading a sentence, jumping back to the beginning, figuring it out, and only then continuing forward. It might not take a reader too long, but it still breaks tension and can quickly grow annoying (and that’s assuming the reader can figure it out. Sometimes, especially in dialogue, you just have to guess in general and go with it).

So, while pronouns are a good thing in writing (it would feel clunky and unnatural to not refer to anything in your story as he, she, it, they, or so on) writers have to be careful to watch for when one pronoun can refer to two different people/objects. This can happen in just about any scene you’re writing, but here are a few examples:

1. One person; or Two people, two different genders.

In a scene where you have one character acting, or two characters written as different genders for any reason (a man and a woman; a man and a character that identifies as female; etc.) you for the most part are in the clear. “He” and/or “She” should only be referring to one person at a time. If using the above example:

One person: “Tommy looked at himself. He was dressed in orange.” He is obviously “Tommy” so there is no pronoun confusion.

Two people, different genders: “Tommy looked between himself and Sally. She was dressed in orange…” Assuming normal gender assignments, Tommy is not going to be referred to as “she” and thus it’s simpler to assume “she” is Sally.

Dialogue between two people of different genders also becomes simpler this way as it is possible to go back and forth using simply “he said”s and “she said”s without the reader getting lost.

2. Two people, same gender.

As the first example shows, having two people in a scene who would share a pronoun (two “he”s, “she”s, or “it”s) leaves you more open to having pronoun confusion. The trick to watch out for here is not inserting another noun in between a noun and its intended pronoun. Should you change the above example to “Tommy looked at John. He was dressed in orange. Tommy didn’t like orange, that was why he was wearing green.” The first sentence is directed at John and there is no other noun between “John” and the first “he” thus you don’t have Tommy (“himself”) and John fighting for the next pronoun. As John is not in the third sentence entirely, there is no confusion that Tommy is the “he” wearing green.

This set up can lead you into situations where all of a sudden it becomes awkward to use pronouns in general (you want to refer to two different “he”s in a sentence but end up with:

a) “Tommy looked at John. He didn’t like how he was looking at him.”

b) “Tommy looked at John. Tommy didn’t like how he was looking at Tommy” (since “he” and “him” would go together)

or c) “Tommy looked at John. He didn’t like how John was looking at him.”

In this case, none are the ideal (as there is room for confusion with all of them) but sometimes a situation like this comes down to the lesser of two (or three) evils. “C” would be the best choice, as you can keep one person as pronouns “Tommy” becomes “he” and “him” while you aren’t stuck only using names. (When you come up against this issue, see which is the least confusing while being the least awkward sounding).

3. More than two people.

When you get into a group situation in a scene (where there are multiple people running around) do your best to only use pronouns to refrain from saying a name over and over in the same sentence (“Sally looked up, eyes narrowed. Sally said…” vs. Sally looked up, eyes narrowed. She said). Since the reader will have to keep track of multiple “he”s and “she”s in the scene, it’s better not to make it any harder than it already is and just use names.

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