Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Pronouns: Who Is Doing What?

Have you ever read a story and wondered who was doing what? Have you ever wondered if your own stories might be just as confusing? Then you could be having trouble with your pronouns.

Pronouns (words like he, him, she, her, that, who and which) stand in for names and other nouns so we don't have to keep repeating them. Take this sentence, for example:

Hazel eased her car into her grandmother's garage and hurried into the house with a freshly baked gingerbread cake--her little cousin's favorite.

Without pronouns, it would look like this:

Hazel eased Hazel's car into Hazel's grandmother's garage and hurried into the house with a freshly baked gingerbread cake--Hazel's little cousin's favorite.

There's no question that pronouns are important. I would hate to have to put up with that kind of repetition all the time.

In our example, the pronouns all stand in for Hazel. In technical terms, Hazel is the antecedent. But what if there's more than one noun and it's not clear which one is the antecedent? It's reminiscent of the classic story of the little bird who doesn't know which creature is its mother. We might have something like this:

Hazel hugged Vicky, kissed her grandmother, then took Amelia's gingerbread cake out of her car.

Whose grandmother did Hazel kiss, Vicky's or her own? From whose car did Hazel take the cake, Amelia's or her own?

There's a simple rule that lets us answer these questions. More importantly, it lets us write so that our readers will not have any trouble knowing who is doing what.

A pronoun's antecedent is always the last matching noun mentioned. 

"Matching" means that it has the same gender and number (singular or plural). 

So now we know that Hazel kissed Vicky's grandmother and took the cake out of Amelia's car. But I would still recommend rewriting the sentence. Sure, now that we know the key we can decode it, but we can do much better. 

Most of our readers, of course, won't know this rule. They won't have the key. So our job as writers is to use the rule to make the antecedent so obvious our readers don't even have to think about it. They can just lose themselves in the story.