Wednesday, September 26, 2012
The Rules of Writing-Parts of Speech-Pronoun 3
Published: September 22, 2012

For writers, what’s in a pronoun?

We’ve listed below a number of problems plaguing writers of all levels of competence. These are issues to watch when rewriting or line editing.

Keep antecedents close to the pronouns
A pronoun refers back to a nearby noun. If this convention isn’t observed, pity the poor reader who has to wonder “who is who” or “what is what.”

The argument started when John and Mark refused to pay for the burnt pancakes. The rain fell unabated, the humidity unbearable. On the windowpane, one drop joined another and raced all the way down to the windowsill. Mary thought they were cute.

Great stuff. Who is cute? The drops, the burnt pancakes, or John and Mark?

Depending on what’s in Mary’s mind, replacing “they” with “the boys,” “the pancakes,” or “the drops” would solve the issue. Writers should avoid repetition whenever possible, but never at the expense of clarity.

The above example is extreme—the antecedents being all over the place and some far removed—but the same problem can ruin short sentences:

If the cat doesn’t like raw fish, cook it.

Poor cat. Rewriting the sentence will spare the feline:

Cook the fish if the cat doesn’t like it raw.

Avoid using a single pronoun with paired antecedents
When there are two or more nouns involved, careless sentence construction can confuse the reader. For example.

Mary told Gladys she couldn’t go to the party.

The mosquito bit his nose, and he was angry.

In the first sentence, we don’t know who can’t go to the party. In the second, we gather the mosquito was angry (as the nose soon would be), but we don’t think that’s what the writer intended to convey.

Mary couldn’t go to the party, she told Gladys.


I can’t go to the party, Mary told Gladys.

Would solve the first problem.

He got angry when the mosquito bit his nose.

Would take care of the second.

In most instances, a writer can improve his prose by omitting the relative pronoun “that,” without loss of meaning.

The dress that she bought was too large.

The dress she bought was too large.

A universal rule of good writing is to avoid repetition. Pronouns can be handy to avoid using a word twice, but sometimes the remedy can be worse than the disease and introduce an element of vagueness. In particular, writers should be wary of “it” and “its.”

The “it” pronoun, by its very nature, is vague at best and even abstract at times. Careless or frequent use can weaken the strongest writing. Of course, sometimes its use is unavoidable:

Mary folded her napkin and set it aside.

The reader is likely to understand that “it” refers to “napkin.” Without the pronoun, the sentence would read:

Mary folded her napkin and set the napkin aside.

Definitely clunky.

In the next example, the inherent vagueness of the pronoun should be self-evident.

Mary charged into the room holding her key and cringed at its size.

When the reader comes across a pronoun, his gaze instinctively seeks its antecedent: the nearest noun. In the example above, the reader would initially assume “its size” refers to the key. If Mary lives in a castle, the reader may think the key is a foot long. On the other hand, the room she’s entered may be vast. In any case, the reader will pause and puzzle out the sentence. If he stops, the story will lose its forward momentum.

We could change the sentence’s structure:

Holding her key, Mary charged into the room and cringed at its size.

The above construction is clearer, but leaves the abstract pronoun in place. “Its” does not conjure the vivid image of “room.” To remove the pronoun we must rewrite:

Mary charged through the door holding her key and cringed at the room’s size.

Holding her key, Mary charged through the door and cringed at the room’s size.

Finally there’s an issue of style and sentence strength. As a rule, avoid ending sentences with a vague pronoun. The most important part of a sentence is its ending. “It” doesn’t convey an image, but a reference to one.

Mary flung a pan at the thieving raccoon, then hurled her rolling pin at it.

Flinging a pan conveys a vivid image. So does hurling a rolling pin. But the “it” ending flattens a sentence with such strong imagery.

We could repeat “raccoon,” but rewriting the sentence to remove “it” is a better proposition.

Mary flung a pan then hurled her rolling pin at the thieving raccoon.

“It” and “its” have their place in good writing. When found in sentences, pause and consider if rewriting will deliver clearer and more powerful images.

Writer’s CompanionRenee Miller & Carlos Cortes

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