Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Pronoun References

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First, let’s define pronouns.

Even if you’ve been writing your heart out for years, you might not remember all the way back to middle school and high school exactly what pronouns are.

Pronouns are some of the smallest words in the English language. Words such as I, me, he, she, herself, you, it, that, they, each, few, many, and who. A pronoun is the word that takes the place of a noun. Pronouns are necessary in pretty much anything you write.

Imagine if you’re writing a novel in third person and every single sentence you referred to the name of your protagonist. Henry did this, Henry did that, Henry said, Henry asked, Henry thought, Henry knew. Oh my God, after two pages of this, your reader’s head would explode.

So you substitute a pronoun for Henry, typically using ‘he’ or ‘him.’ It’s good to mix things up every other sentence, or every three sentences. You don’t want to use any one word over and over.


So what is pronoun reference?

If ‘Henry’ is your noun, and ‘he’ is your pronoun, it’s important at all times to make sure the ‘he’ connects back to ‘Henry’ in your sentences in a way that makes sense to the reader.

In this case, ‘he’ is the pronoun, and ‘Henry’ is the antecedent to the pronoun. An antecedent is typically something or someone that has already been mentioned, and the pronoun helps guide the reader forward, at the same time signalling to readers what that antecedent is so they don’t get confused.

Here’s an example of pronoun reference that makes zero sense…

The writing group meets tomorrow night at 8, and she will announce at 8:15 the lucky person whose latest story is being workshopped.

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t make zero sense. You read a sentence like that, and you kind of understand what’s happening.

But the sentence is an example of poor pronoun reference because ‘she’ has no clear antecedent. There’s nothing ‘she’ calls back to in this sentence.

Now if the previous sentence made reference to a woman’s name, then sure, this sentence might make more sense. But if there’s no female name mentioned, then this sentence needs to be re-done.


Pronoun reference gets confusing when there are many possibilities in the same sentence for what the pronoun refers to.

It’s one thing if the reader has to look back a sentence or two for the antecedent. It’s another when the pronoun can refer to more than one possible antecedent in the same sentence.

The meanings of the words provide clues about what the pronoun refers to sometimes, but the bottom line is that your reader should never have to go hunting for these clues. The writing should be clear to the reader at all times.

Here’s an example of a sentence where the pronoun could have more than one antecedent…

My boyfriend took my dad out to a late lunch because he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

It’s easy to find the pronoun in this example, right? It’s ‘he.’ But who does ‘he’ refer to — the boyfriend or the dad? There might be clues in the previous sentences, but there also might not be.

I come across this confusion all the time when I’m writing fiction in third person. When I’m writing a long scene that features two people of the same gender, sentences like these can happen without even realizing it.


So how do you fix a sentence like this?

There are a few ways. If you want to keep the sentence mostly the same, you can write it like this…

My boyfriend took my dad out to a late lunch because my dad hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Kind of clunky. In a way it sounds worse than the previous example, but in the end it’s better because it makes the sentence totally clear for the reader.

If the narrator of the story ever refers to the dad’s name, you could also write it like this…

My boyfriend took my dad out to a late lunch because Earl hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Still kind of clunky, but at least you don’t say “my dad” twice in the same sentence.

If it were me, I would change the structure of the sentence a bit and do this…

My dad hadn’t eaten anything all day, so my boyfriend took him out to a late lunch.

So much better, am I right? In this case, the pronoun ‘he’ has been replaced with ‘him,’ but otherwise the sentence stays mostly the same, except now it makes perfect sense for the reader.


Keep an eye out for confusing pronoun references always.

They aren’t as easy to spot as, say, a misspelling, or a comma splice. You might read your work extremely closely, and your eyes will still pass over ten different sentences that have confusing examples of pronoun references.

This isn’t something you should be thinking about when you’re writing your first draft. It’s also not something you should pay much attention to in your second draft either.

But once your latest manuscript is reaching the end of the editing process, I would take a little extra time to look for any pronoun references that could be strengthened or made clearer for the reader.

Doing so will only help make your writing shine all the more!

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