About Writing

Stop. Grammar Time— An Author’s Toolbox post.

One of the most finicky parts of speech is the pronoun. With its seven classes and four properties, it is one of the more complicated parts of speech to comprehend and to use correctly. I dreaded teaching them because students frequently didn’t understand my technical language. A simple statement like, “A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number, person, and gender” caused consternation. And all of this was complicated by the general misuse of some pronouns in society. I had to break them of “But this doesn’t sound right” because all too often, they had simply heard a pronoun misused in daily life.

But I had to teach pronouns because they figure widely on the SAT, and our school rating was tied to student results.

Today, I want to talk about UNCLEAR PRONOUN REFERENTS. Don’t sigh like that. Really, it’s not that hard, and they’re important for us as writers.

Let’s start easy. A referent is the noun a pronoun refers to. Ex. Lisa took her dog for a walk. The possessive pronoun her refers back to Lisa. Simple, right?

Of course it doesn’t stay that way.

“Fred told Tony that polka dotted underwear was showing through the seat of his dress pants.”

What’s wrong with that?

Tell me, who had the ripped pants? Technically, it would be Tony, since a pronoun refers to the closest noun, but that may not be the intent of the writer. We don’t know because the reference is unclear. Granted, fixing it simply would result in an awkward mess.

“Fred told Tony that polka dotted underwear was showing through the seat of Fred’s dress pants.”

It’s now correct, though. Personally, I would restructure the sentence so this didn’t occur.

“Fred told Tony, ‘You’ve got polka dotted underwear showing through the seat of your dress pants.'”

I find that this issue most frequently crops up when I have two characters of the same gender in a scene. It is both tiring and awkward to keep using the names repeatedly, so of course I use “she,” “he,” or “they” (if that is the characters’ chosen pronoun) as applicable. I just go over (and over) a scene to make sure it’s clear who is doing what, owning what, saying what. You get the idea. Just remember, it might be clear in YOUR head, but will it be clear in the reader’s?

Sometimes unclear referents can be unintentionally hilarious.

“When the bottle is empty or the baby stops drinking, it must be sterilized with hot water.”

Here, it is unclear exactly which is to be sterilized with hot water. Now, this is the moment where a student would say, “But no one would sterilize a baby. It doesn’t make sense.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, but the issue is that the writer is making the reader clarify the meaning of the sentence. As writers, it is OUR job to make sure meaning is clear, not the reader’s to figure out the intent of the writer. And who knows? Maybe the writer is evil. (And again, technically, the closest noun would be the baby.)

Also at this time another student would comment, “Besides, a baby isn’t an it. Therefore, the pronoun must refer to the bottle.”

Nope. Baby is a genderless noun (in English, anyway). Unless we have more information in prior sentences, it is correct. We might not like that fact, but that’s the case.

It’s an easy fix.

“All used bottles must be sterilized in hot water.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, but double check that your pronouns refer to the correct nouns.

Of course, this is just the beginning of unclear referents, but that’s enough for today.

Class dismissed 🙂

8 thoughts on “Stop. Grammar Time— An Author’s Toolbox post.”

  1. I opened this post earlier today (I open everyone’s blog hop posts all at once so I can go through them throughout the day when I have time), and I’ve had Hammer Time in my head ever since, lol. OMG, I love this post. I didn’t realize what the technical name for this problem was, so I bookmarked this so I will always know where to find it–the name, not the problem. 😉 Please pretty please please please do more grammar posts like this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry about the ear worm. I plan on doing more grammar posts, since in them I think I have something to say. Ironically, grammar was my least favorite thing to teach 🙂


  2. I am always amused by how the most common words and structural practices have the most convoluted explanations. I read these things and go “how is anyone supposed to actually understand this? Especially when these words and rules are some of the first that English speakers need to learn (which means many learners are very young)?”

    But I do agree that it’s good to formally discuss this topic. As you say, many repeatedly incorrectly structure their sentences, and it is a bit disappointing when something is taught using the convention of “well for now just remember that ‘this’ is how it is. We’ll cover why it is ‘this way’ later.”

    It’s definitely interesting to explore different ways of expressing the same meaning, and considering how the experience of reading/hearing the sentence changes along with the structure, even though the meaning being expressed is essentially the same.

    When I have multiple characters and am using pronouns, I try to give each pronoun character an action or other detail that clearly identifies them. For example, maybe one has a beard, and they can run their fingers through their beard as they consider the problem, or tell someone else what they’ve realized.

    I think your point about potential ambiguity is well made, and one of the more subtle pitfalls a person can make.
    I’m always very wary of the assumptions and “extra knowledge” that I as the creator of the text possess.

    One of the more common mistakes I’ve caught myself doing is either misspelling or omitting a word, but every time I read over the sentence, my mind internally makes the correction, so I don’t actually register that there’s a mistake at all.

    Thank you for sharing.


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