Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For Whom the Pronoun Stands

In my post about may versus might I included the sentences, “Don may be forced to fire Ted if he cannot resist the temptations of YouTube while at work. I’ve heard that he might seek counseling to curb his addiction.” In rereading that example, I wondered if my pronoun use was perhaps unclear. Naturally, that made me wish to post about how I could tell.

In short, the general rule runs thus: unless the sentence otherwise specifies to which person it refers, a pronoun used refers to the last person/group/object named. That means that you have to pay attention to the gender and number of the pronoun. In my example you’ve only the two to choose from which makes identifying “he” much simpler. What if I had written about Don, Ted, and Dave from HR?

“Dave told Don that he may be forced to fire Ted if he cannot resist those great kitten videos while on the clock. He said he’d heard that he might seek counseling for his problem.”
In the first sentence we’ve referred to both Don and Ted as “he” but only after using their respective names to identify them. In the second I am theoretically still writing about Ted except that the sentence doesn’t make sense if he is the only subject.

As the entire raison d’ĂȘtre of pronouns is their ability to stand in for nouns so that you need not use a name over and over in your writing, I’d never advocate avoiding them. You’d end up with something like this:
“Dave told Don that Don may be forced to fire Ted if Ted cannot resist Daft Punk mash-up videos at Ted’s desk. Don said Don had heard that Ted was going to Daft Rehab.”
Who wants to read that sort of garbage, let alone write it?

You must remember that your audience doesn’t have the inside knowledge you do of the situation, fictional or factual. When you write you already know who acts, who feels what, and who speaks to whom. If you’re on fire with creativity you may not notice how often you substitute pronouns for names. Cast an eye over what you’ve written and consider whether your readers can tell the difference between Ted and Don in any given sentence. You’ll be doing all of you a favor.