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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Writing Tip Wednesday--Using Pronouns

I've been neck-deep in IGO Contest entries for most of the past week, and I had to comment in every one of them about Using Pronouns correctly.

What is a pronoun? A pronoun is a word used as a substitute for a noun or another pronoun.

One of the most common problems I've seen with pronouns is confusion about who the pronoun refers to. If I'm writing a scene with more than one person of the same sex and using "she" for both of them, how does the reader know which "she" I'm talking about?

Here's an example:
***Jan's arms loaded with groceries, she stabbed the doorbell with her elbow.
***The door swung inward, and Grandma peeked through the opening. "Come in, dear! Let me help you carry those things to the kitchen."
***"It's okay. I got 'em." She tightened her grip on heaviest bag.
***"If you're sure." Leading the way to the kitchen, she glanced over her shoulder. "Can you stay for lunch?"
***She shook her head. "Sorry. I wish I could, but George has appointment at the vet in twenty minutes. Rain check?"
***"How about Tuesday?" As one of the bags sagged on the counter, she steadied it, keeping fruits and vegetables from tumbling onto the floor.
***She smiled. "Perfect."

Assuming the action tags are placed with the correct dialogue (which isn't the case with some of the contest entries I've judged), who steadied the sagging bag? Can you easily remember who's saving the produce without going back to the beginning of the scene? Who has the last line of dialogue?

By referring to both women as "she," the person doing the action and speaking becomes more muddled with every line. Imagine an entire three- or four-page scene with only "she" and "her" to guide you after the initial mention of names. Confusing, right?

To clarify who's speaking, let's modify the scene to be more specific.

Revised example:
***Her arms loaded with groceries, Jan stabbed the doorbell with her elbow.
***The door swung inward, and Grandma peeked through the opening. "Come in, dear! Let me help you carry those things to the kitchen."
***"It's okay, Grammy. I got 'em." Jan tightened her grip on heaviest bag.
***"If you're sure." Leading the way to the kitchen, her grandmother glanced over her shoulder. "Can you stay for lunch?"
***Jan shook her head. "Sorry. I wish I could, but George has appointment with the vet in twenty minutes. Rain check?"
***"How about Tuesday?" As one of the bags sagged on the counter, Grandma steadied it, keeping fruits and vegetables from tumbling onto the floor.
***With a smile, Jan set down the last of the groceries. "Perfect."

Although more frequent use of names can seem awkward, it's often necessary to make the scene easier to follow. To keep a reader's interest, avoid confusing her.

Another pronoun issue I want to address is "it." You know, that little pronoun we use all the time without having a noun for it to reflect? While Chicago Manual of Style allows "it" to represent an understood meaning or concept, I prefer not to use that arbitrary "it" in narrative. By saying exactly what you mean, you leave no chance for error on the reader's part. That's my preference, though. I recommend avoiding the use of "it" without a specific noun to new writers to promote tighter, more concise writing. However, like many areas of writing craft, the rules aren't written in stone, and I'm not about to say my way is the only way. :)

Next week, while I'm in Atlanta for RWA's National Conference, let's review basic Punctuation Rules. By then, I should be done judging contest entries and back to writing!

Mellanie Szereto
Romance...With A Kick!

4 comments:

  1. Oh yes. Know what you mean. Particularly when I am writing menage scenes. I have to read it out loud to myself slowly and pretend I don't know what is going to happen just to see if it is clear which 'he/she' I am referring to and if I need to insert their names. Good point about rearranging the sentences to avoid overuse of the names.

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    1. Reading aloud is a great way to catch mistakes, Jen!

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  2. {Grin} Love the post. I try to balance the pronouns and the proper names and avoid confusion. Sometimes I end up rephrasing the sentence in order to make sure the HE or SHE I'm referring to is the last person I mentioned.

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    1. Great strategy, Margaret! Thanks for stopping by! :)

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