Monday, March 2, 2015

Pronoun Confusion, Part Three

Again with the pronouns. And again with the quick review:

Pronoun: a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase. We’ve focused on proper pronouns such as he, she, it, we, and they as well as possessive pronouns such as his, her, its, our, or their.

Antecedent: the word that the pronoun replaces. Tamara could be the antecedent to she, for instance, or the magicians’ could be the antecedent to their.

We’ve discussed how important it is to ensure that it’sclear which noun is the antecedent to each pronoun you use. There are few things as confusing to a reader as not knowing which of your female cast members you’re referring to when you say she.

One of the most common causes of confusion in regards to pronouns and antecedents is an old, oft-ignored rule: a possessive noun cannot function as an antecedent. Here’s an example of this rule being broken:

     Violet’s eyes were always downcast because she was so afraid of confrontation.

In that example, she is the pronoun, and it is clear that the she being spoken of is Violet. The only problem is that the word Violet never appeared in the sentence—the word Violet’s did. Why does that matter? Well, because pronouns take the place of nouns, and Violet’s isn’t actually a noun. It’s an adjective describing eyes, the actual noun and subject of the sentence. So technically, the pronoun she is referring back to a noun that doesn’t exist. It’s a problem called a possessive antecedent.

Now, I called this a “problem,” but the fact of the matter is that this is extremely common in both written and spoken English. Everyone does this at some point or another, sometimes very frequently. The reason this error is so common is that it isn’t confusing—look back at that example sentence again. When you read it, were you ever confused about who she referred to? No. You knew that she meant “Violet.”

So while that sentence is technically grammatically incorrect, it’s not that big of a problem. If I were your editor, I would make you fix this sort of error, but many editors probably wouldn’t care about it. You can fix these if you want to go the extra mile.

However. There are two situations where the possessive antecedent should always be fixed. The first is when there is another possible antecedent in the sentence with it:

     Gregorii plunged the knife into Pavel’s leg, making him grunt.

This is similar to the problem we discussed in part one of this pronoun series—if there are two subjects in one sentence to whom the pronoun could refer, your readers can’t be positive which subject you meant. In the example above, it’s pretty clear that Pavel is the one grunting; but grammatically speaking, the only noun in the sentence is Gregorii. Try to avoid this situation. Here is a revised version:

     Gregorii plunged the knife into Pavel’s leg and twisted it viciously. Pavel merely grunted.

The second situation is when the possessive you're referring back to is describing a noun that could also be described by the pronoun. For instance:

     Terrel's son was happy and well-adjusted because he was such a great dad.

Who is he? Is Terrel's son happy because Terrel is a great dad? Because this sentence actually says that Terrel's son is happy because he is a great father to his own, unmentioned son (Terrel's grandson).

The sentence is so vague that it could imply either of these situations. Writers should be more precise than that.

If you wanted to convey that Terrel was the great dad, then you need to rephrase the sentence to something like this:

     Terrel was a great dad, so his son was happy and well-adjusted.

For more information on pronouns and the confusion they can cause, check out Part One and Part Two of this series.

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