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!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Mixed Constructions

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Mixed constructions are a lot more complicated than comma splices and fused sentences.

Recently I wrote about the need to avoid comma splices and why you should fix all your fused sentences.

Those are two areas in your writing that are easily noticeable as long as you’re paying attention.

Mixed constructions, on the other hand, might appear right to you even if you’re looking closely. You might read a sentence aloud that has mixed constructions and think it’s grammatically correct.

Unfortunately, such is not the case. And to make your writing sound its best, you need to learn what a mixed construction is and why it should be avoided at all costs.


So what exactly is a mixed construction?

At the most basic level, it’s a sentence that starts with one kind of structure… but then ends with another one. Usually a sentence with a mixed construction makes total sense to a reader, but it also has the ability to confuse a reader as well.

There isn’t one kind of mixed construction, and such is the reason why it can be hard at times to point them out.

But let’s look at some common examples and figure out ways to fix them…

Example One

Revising is when you go through your short story or novel and improve upon it in a variety of ways.

Sounds perfectly fine, right? If you were to see this sentence in the middle of a paragraph — hell, even at the beginning of a paragraph — you might not think anything of it.

But notice the awkwardness at the beginning. The word ‘when’ is our problem. ‘When’ refers to an event happening in time, and there’s no time associated with this example. The sentence is detailing a kind of writing process, so the use of ‘when’ is unjustified.

So how do you fix it? Pretty easy.

Revising is the process of going through your short story or novel and improving upon it in a variety of ways.

Way better, right? Notice that I added -ing to the words ‘go’ and ‘improve’ so that the sentence makes perfect sense.

Example Two

Most writers tend to agree about the necessity of short chapters in thriller novels and also quick, choppy sentences.

This isn’t a terrible sentence. You could probably get away with it.

But it still sounds kind of odd, right? What’s the problem, exactly?

The problem is the mixed construction. Everything before “and also” makes sense, but then things get confusing. The way the sentence is written now makes it sound like writers could be agreeing on the use of short chapters in thriller novels AND the use of short chapters in choppy sentences, which is confusing and bad.

Here are three ways you could potentially fix this sentence.

Most writers tend to agree about the necessity of short chapters in thriller novels and also on the necessity of quick, choppy sentences.

Not terrible, but let’s do better.

Most writers tend to agree about the necessity of short chapters in thriller novels. Writers also believe quick, choppy sentences are important in the genre.

Much better. But I still would go a step further and make the example less wordy, more to-the-point.

Most writers tend to agree about the necessity of short chapters and choppy sentences in thriller novels.

There! Oh my God, so much better. And so much easier to read.


Be aware of mixed constructions in your writing.

They happen to the best of us. I probably write one or two every day I’m drafting a new novel.

And that’s totally fine! Feel free to load up your first draft of a story or novel with dozens of mixed constructions.

The trick of course is to locate them and fix them pronto as you revise your work later. And one easy way to do this is to read your work aloud and recognize the sentences that don’t sound quite right.

Again, mixed constructions are often harder to find than comma splices and fused sentences.

But take the extra time to find as many as you can, and you’ll absolutely be rewarded in the long run.

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Fused Sentences

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Just one example of a fused sentence can bring the quality of your writing down dramatically.

It’s not as common as comma splices, I’ll give you that. Comma splices happen all the time in your writing, which I talked about last week.

Comma splices happen in everything. Fiction. Non-fiction. Academic writing.

Comma splices are the cause of a million red circles on students’ high school essays.

But fused sentences happen a lot too, and they are even more problematic than comma splices. At least in a work of fiction, you can make the case for comma splices in terms of the rhythm of your sentences, the pacing of your current paragraph.


There is, however, no excuse for a fused sentence.

Unless you have a character shouting dialogue that comes in the form of stream of consciousness — “Mom I don’t want to go to the party I don’t want to go don’t you hear me!” — I don’t really see a place for fused sentences even in your most fantastical of fiction.

A fused sentence is easy to miss when you’re reading through your work again. It often looks like a perfectly fine, grammatically correct sentence that begins with a capital letter and ends with a punctuation mark.

The big problem with a fused sentence is that it smashes two independent clauses up against each other in a way that won’t make sense to most of your readers. The connection might make sense to you, but that’s not enough.

Here’s a typical fused sentence in a work of fiction…

Karen ran as fast as she could down the school hallway the six-foot-tall gargoyle was chasing after her.

When you’re reading through your sentences fast, that sentence might seem okay. This is a moment of suspense, after all. What reader is going to notice that this sentence is comprised of two independent clauses unnecessarily smashing up against one another?

The sentence ultimately looks weird because there’s no ending to the first independent clause and no beginning to the second one.

It’s sort of like a run-on sentence, although run-on sentences are slightly different because they typically have a coordinating conjunction in the middle of independent clauses, a sentence more like “Karen ran as fast as she could and the gargoyle was chasing after her and her friend was waiting for her outside and Karen was screaming at the top of her lungs,” something like that.

A fused sentence happens when you’re not paying full attention. When you’re flying through that first draft so fast you don’t catch these occasional mistakes that might read all right to some but confuse many of your readers looking a bit more closely.


So how do you fix fused sentences?

There’s not just one way to fix a fused sentence, but keep this in mind: you do need to fix each and every one of them!

The simplest: add a period.

Karen ran as fast as she could down the school hallway. The six-foot-tall gargoyle was chasing after her.

This is the most obvious way to fix the problem. Separate the two independent clauses with a period, and you have two decent sentences. When you have absolutely no idea what to do, this method is probably the one you should go with.

But sometimes this method does make your sentences a little too dry, a little too blah. You don’t want your fiction to read like a report, am I right?

The problematic: insert a semi-colon.

Karen ran as fast as she could down the school hallway; the six-foot-tall gargoyle was chasing after her.

Like with comma splices, this isn’t necessarily terrible. Semi-colons are used to link two independent clauses closely related in thought, and this example about Karen running away from the gargoyle certainly fits under that rule.

The problem is that in fiction writing, semi-colons often look weird on the page. They’re certainly allowed in fiction, but sparingly, I would say.

You could go a step further and write,

Karen ran as fast as she could down the school hallway; she was trying to outrun the six-foot-tall gargoyle chasing after her.

But again, this still looks awkward. There’s too much telling in the example too, so it’s probably best to look for another way to link the two sentences.

The alternate: add a coordinating conjunction.

Karen ran as fast as she could down the school hallway, as the six-foot-tall gargoyle was chasing after her.

Adding a coordinating conjunction basically means adding a single word in the middle of the two independent clauses, such as and, but, or, nor, so, for, as, or yet.

In the case of these two independent clauses, this is an example you could potentially go with, although you shouldn’t in this example use most of those coordinating conjunctions because they wouldn’t make sense.

Using as definitely makes sense, though, and could work just fine, although it’s still not great.

The ideal: add a subordinating word.

When Karen ran as fast as she could down the school hallway, the six-foot-tall gargoyle chased after her.

In many cases, adding a subordinating word will be the ideal fix to fused sentences, the same way they’re the ideal fix for comma splices. That example above is, in my mind, the best version of that particular sentence from everything I’ve featured in this article. .

Notice all I did was add a new subordinating word to the beginning, add a comma after the first independent clause, and changed “was chasing” to “chased.” So much better! (You should always try to eliminate most of your -ing verbs in your writing, but that’s another post for another time.)


Overall, be smart when it comes to fused sentences.

And being smart means recognizing them in the first place. It’s easy to spot comma splices in your fiction but much more difficult to find fused sentences if you’re not looking closely enough.

So read through your work slowly. Read it out loud if that helps, too.

If occasionally a fused sentence rolls off your fingertips when you’re speeding your way through your first draft, fine, don’t worry about it, you can fix it in the second or third draft.

But do try to avoid fused sentences whenever possible. Your fiction writing will absolutely be better for it!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Comma Splices

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The pesky comma splice.

It’s something you don’t typically like to think about. It’s something that your high school English teacher wrote in the margins of so many of your essays, remember?

And it’s also something you should try to avoid in your fiction whenever possible.

What exactly is a comma splice? They’re basically when you join two independent clauses with only a comma. Sentences like these…

I just saw Brandon in the hallway, I hope he likes me.

It was a beautiful mid-summer day, the basketball game went on forever.

In both of these examples, each independent clause makes sense, and there’s some idea of how they connect. The narrator in the first example probably has a crush on Brandon. The narrator in the second example is probably telling us the basketball game went on forever because it was a beautiful day.

But it’s not entirely clear. And almost always, what comma splices do for your readers is confuse them.


So how do you fix comma splices?

There’s not just one way to fix a comma splice. If you have a hundred comma splices in your latest work of fiction, you shouldn’t just fix them all the exact same way. You have to think about rhythm in your sentences. You have to think about intent.

So let’s look at four common ways to fix these examples.

The simplest: change the comma to a period.

I just saw Brandon in the hallway. I hope he likes me.

This is the most obvious way to fix the problem. Separate the two independent clauses with a period, and voila, you have two perfectly fine sentences. When in doubt, this method is probably the one you should go with.

The problematic: change the comma to a semi-colon.

I just saw Brandon in the hallway; I hope he likes me.

This isn’t a terrible idea. Semi-colons are used to link two independent clauses closely related in thought.

The problem is that in fiction writing, semi-colons often look strange on the page. Pick up a book of fiction by you right now, turn to a page, and see if you can find a semi-colon. Probably not, right? They’re allowed in fiction, but sparingly, I would say.

The alternate: add a coordinating conjunction.

I just saw Brandon in the hallway, and I hope he likes me.

Adding a coordinating conjunction basically means adding a single word in the middle of the two independent clauses, such as and, but, or, nor, so, for, or yet. In some cases, this might work the best, although notice it doesn’t really work so great in the example above. It could work if the sentence was, I just saw Brandon in the hallway, and I hope he says hi.

It also would work much better using that second example from before…

It was a beautiful mid-summer day, and the basketball game went on forever.

Still not great, but it definitely makes more sense than the first example.

The ideal: add a subordinating word.

Because it was a beautiful mid-summer day, the basketball game went on forever.

In many cases, adding a subordinating word will be the ideal fix to a comma splice. That example above is, in my mind, the best version of that particular sentence. It clearly tells you why the basketball game went on forever.

A subordinating word is often because, but it can also be while, however, although. Let’s try the other example.

Because I just saw Brandon in the hallway, I hope he likes me.

Doesn’t work, does it? Here’s a case where the simplest example — separating the independent clauses into two sentences — is probably best.


Are comma splices ever acceptable in your writing?

Sure they are. Many of the examples I shared above are particularly useful if you’re writing academic papers, research papers, but fiction and creative non-fiction are entirely different beasts.

You should still try to avoid comma splices, but here are a few reasons why they might be acceptable…

  1. Point-of-View. If you’re writing a young adult fiction novel told from the first-person perspective of a teenager, then comma splices might be okay from time to time. Since that character would write lots of comma splices, having absolutely none of them in the entire novel might look weird. On the other hand, if you’re writing a literary novel in third person omniscient, comma splices should be mostly avoided, since the style of writing under this POV is vastly different.
  2. Rhythm. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the occasional comma splice actually enhances the rhythm and pacing of your writing. Especially in a longer paragraph, merging two independent clauses with a comma instead of a period might enhance the specific rhythm you’re going for in your storytelling.
  3. Short, punchy sentences. Again, here’s another case where comma splices look better. Examples like, Many people like sports, I don’t. Or, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Separating short sentences like these with a period or a semi-colon feels like effort that’s not needed. They roll off the tongue so quickly that the comma splice actually seems fitting in a way.

Overall, be smart when it comes to comma splices.

And being smart means recognizing them in the first place.

If you choose to keep a lot of them in your fiction, be prepared for a literary agent or beta reader or editor to make you go through and fix most of them.

It’s certainly not in your best interest to load up your writing with them and hope you’ll get away with it.

If occasionally a comma splice rolls off your fingertips, fine, don’t worry about it, you can fix it (or not fix it) later.

But do try to avoid them whenever possible. Most of the time, your fiction writing will be all the better for it!