Friday, February 27, 2015

Pronoun Confusion, Part Two

Earlier this week, we discussed pronouns and unclear antecedents. Today I’d like to show you another way that pronouns can cause trouble, a problem I like to call the “antecedent switch.”

Now, quick review—a pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase, such as he, she, they, or I. An antecedent is the noun or noun phrase that the pronoun replaces:

     Joseph knew all the answers to the test because he had studied.
(Antecedent)                                                      (Pronoun)

Pronouns are simple enough to use when you only have one character in a scene to whom each of them can apply. For instance, if your scene features one man and one woman and no other characters, then you’ll always know who the pronoun he refers to and who the pronoun she refers to. But if your scene features two women and two men, then it will suddenly become a little trickier to keep track of who is he and who is she.

You should probably hold off on your novelization of 12 Angry Men until you're absolutely certain that you've mastered your clear pronoun usage.

A good rule of thumb is that a pronoun will generally refer back to the last applicable antecedent. For example:

     Sophia hated the color green because she had spent years trying to get grass stains out clothing. Mary, on the other hand, loved the color green because she loved the outdoors.

In the first sentence, the pronoun she refers to Sophia. In the next sentence, however, the exact same pronoun refers to Mary instead. This is acceptable prose because Mary was the most recent possible antecedent in the second sentence.

There is a very strong exception to this rule, however: do not switch antecedents in the middle of the sentence. For example:

     Sophia finished reading. She handed the book to Mary so that she could read the passage too.

At the beginning of the second sentence, she referred to Sophia. Later in the same sentence, it referred to Mary. This is a no-no. Do not use the same pronoun twice (or more) in one sentence to refer to two (or more) different antecedents. If you want to use your pronoun in place of a new antecedent, then you should either begin a new sentence or re-word your original passage to remove one of the pronouns.

     Sophia finished reading and handed the book to Mary so that she could read the passage too.

Bam. No antecedent switch in the middle of the sentence; there is only one pronoun, and it is clear what its antecedent is.

So that’s a solid rule to help you keep your pronoun usage clear. Plus, while writing this post I came up with about three other pronoun problems that I’ll want to mention, so look out for plenty more on this topic in the future.

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