By Eileen Register, English teacher and author of Adrianna and the Grisholm County Chronicles series.
Pronouns are handy little words. They keep our writing from being too repetitious. Here’s a quick example:
Eileen thinks she should pay more attention to her grammar.
Now let’s try that without using pronouns:
Eileen thinks Eileen should pay more attention to Eileen’s grammar.
Obviously, the second example is too repetitious, using the proper noun, Eileen, three times in a ten-word sentence. It would be too much even in a longer sentence. The first sentence uses a subjective pronoun to indicate “Eileen” and then an objective pronoun to indicate “Eileen”, and in both instances, the reader understands what word is being substituted. If we want to make absolutely sure about the “her” in the sentence, we could add another word to clarify it: …to her own grammar.
Now let’s play with that sentence a bit. Look what happens if we do this:
She thinks she should pay more attention to Eileen’s grammar.
Who is the “she” in this sentence? I can’t tell who should be paying more attention to Eileen’s grammar. Can you? This is called an unclear antecedent (even when the pronoun precedes the noun it is replacing).
Here’s another one:
Eileen thinks Mary should pay more attention to her grammar.
Should Mary pay more attention to her OWN grammar or to Eileen’s grammar? We would probably assume Eileen is telling Mary to pay more attention to Mary’s grammar, but it isn’t really clear, is it?
Things get even more complicated in paragraphs. For example:
Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. She thinks she should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, she thinks her grammar is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. She can argue all she wants, but she will never convince her to take those classes.
Oh my goodness! Which “she” is “she”? Which one thinks the other one needs classes? This is an extreme example, of course, but it brings home the fact that having clear antecedents for pronouns is very important. This paragraph can have four totally different meanings, depending on which pronouns are replaced by which nouns:
Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. Eileen thinks Carol should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, Carol thinks her writing is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. She can argue all she wants, but she will never convince her that she needs to take those classes.
In this sentence, it is clear that Eileen thinks Carol has the writing problems. The fact that it is Carol who should take more English classes makes the rest of the pronouns clearly refer to Carol. Because of the first two sentences, we can assume that in the third sentence, Eileen is the one who can argue, and Carol is the one who can never be convinced. However, you know what they say about that word “assume” – it can make an ASS of U and ME. The sentence would be much clearer if some of the pronouns were changed to nouns:
Eileen can argue all she wants, but she will never convince Carol that she needs to take those classes.
If we switch Eileen and Carol beginning with the second sentence, then it becomes Eileen who has the writing problem and Carol who thinks Eileen needs to take some English classes:
Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. Carol thinks Eileen should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, Eileen thinks her grammar is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. Carol can argue all she wants, but she will never convince Eileen that she needs to take those classes.
Have I lost you yet? Well, let’s take another look at that paragraph, replacing the pronouns in yet another way:
Eileen and her sister, Carol, often argue about grammar. Eileen thinks she should take another English class or two so that her writing has less errors. However, Carol thinks Eileen’s grammar is just fine and doesn’t think she needs any help with it. Carol can argue all she wants, but she will never convince Eileen that she doesn’t need to take those classes.
Although we had to change “needs” to “doesn’t need” in the paragraph this time, the principle is the same as far as pronouns are concerned. We can switch Eileen and Carol in this one, too, and have the opposite meaning. (If I worked at it a bit more, I could probably come up with several other ways to change the pronouns and give different meanings to the paragraph. However, I’m tired of typing the same paragraph over and over, and I’m sure you’re tired of reading it, so I’ll stop here.)
This has been a study in unclear antecedents (and a repetitive BLOG entry, one might add), but I hope it has helped to clear up this particular problem with pronouns and nouns. Pronouns are great for reducing redundancy in our writing, but if the reader may be confused by the use of pronouns, it’s important to use their antecedents often enough to clarify who or what we are talking about.
One last point: When writing several paragraphs that have the same two antecedents, and one antecedent is a “she” and one is a “he”, it is possible to argue that the reader won’t become confused if the second paragraph and those following it contain only the pronouns. I’ve made it my personal policy not to do that because I feel that it makes for a better understanding regardless of gender (especially if the two characters are Tracy and Terry!). Readers may tend to forget which characters are being talked about if the names are left out for several paragraphs since there are usually more than one “he” and one “she” in the book. Going back and rereading to see which characters are doing what can be irritating to the reader. We want them to read our entire novel over and over, not parts of it, but if they have to go back and reread stuff to keep track of things, they are less likely to give the book a second reading.
Okay, now that I have beaten that horse to death, I’ll see youz guyz next time! Perhaps I’ll talk about using too many euphemisms and colloquialisms and too much regional slang. (GRIN)