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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writer Mag Column 18: Pronouns

Who's on first? Keep pronouns in line

On the baseball field, the manager picks the best position players and puts them on first base, second base and so on. Chaos—and many losses—would ensue if an unprepared player got put in the wrong spot. On the written page, you must also correctly place the position players—in this case, pronouns. You don’t want to promote your bench players to first string if they don’t deserve it.

A pronoun stands in for a noun you’ve already mentioned, so in the sentence The pitcher said he was tired, you’re using “he” to avoid repeating “the pitcher.” Sometimes, though, pronouns creep into the wrong positions. Your readers won’t support a team that makes too many errors, so let’s review four main pronoun regulations. If you keep them straight, you won’t be ejected from the game.

Regulation 1: Remember which pronouns are subject pronouns and which are object pronouns.

No matter how much of a baseball or writing fan you are, you’re not allowed to say, Me and Jimmy sat behind the dugout. Me is an object pronoun and cannot be a subject; you must use I: Jimmy and I sat behind the dugout.

The other subject pronouns are he, she, you, we, they and it. They are subjects, as in He hit a home run.

The object pronouns are me, him, her, you, us, them and it. Object pronouns—are you ready for this?—are objects, as in The batter hit a home run to him.

Native speakers don’t make mistakes such as Them are my teammates; we naturally say, They are my teammates. However, we do sometimes promote object pronouns to subject pronouns when we’re talking about two individuals and want to emphasize the first one. You might hear someone say, Her and I met at the mall. Unless your characters are teenyboppers who are unconcerned with grammar, don’t put such words into their mouths.

Regulation 2: Do not put your pronoun before its antecedent.

Umpires don’t let players go to first base before they deserve a walk; batters have to wait until there are four balls—not three, two or one. Likewise, you’re not supposed to use a pronoun before you’ve mentioned the noun it replaces (called an “antecedent” because it comes before the pronoun).

If you use a pronoun before its antecedent, you’ll confuse your readers. I became disoriented when I read this Criminal Sentence:

If it’s available, make sure to order Armagnac.

When I arrived at the pronoun “it,” I wondered what singular item was being discussed (the antecedent did not appear in the sentence before). I had to read the entire sentence to get the full picture. Luckily, the fix is easy. Just reverse the pronoun and the noun:

If Armagnac is available, make sure to order it.

Here’s another Criminal Sentence that I wish hadn’t made it into print:

Though they’ve never seen facial expressions, people blind from birth still use them.

This sentence is confusing because we have no idea what the pronoun “they” is standing in for—until we read the whole sentence. As we find out later, “they” means “people blind from birth.” If we switch around the noun and pronoun, as we did for the Armagnac sentence, we solve the problem:

Though people blind from birth have never seen facial expressions, they still use them.

Although “people blind from birth” and “they” now line up correctly, this fix has introduced a new problem (see Regulation 3).

Regulation 3: Ensure that your pronoun does not have two or more potential antecedents.

Did the last part of that facial-expression sentence confuse you? The pronoun “they” seems to refer back to “facial expressions,” the plural noun closest to “they,” but another plural antecedent—the true one—is lurking earlier in the sentence: “people blind from birth.” We must rewrite the sentence to avoid this problem. After much huddling in the dugout, we’ve decided to avoid pronouns altogether and instead restate the two nouns in a more specific way:

Though people blind from birth have never seen facial expressions, the sight-impaired still grimace and smile, for example.

Another Criminal Sentence shows how ambiguous pronouns can be if you’re not careful:

The room contained a chair, a desk and a lone light bulb. It was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.

That’s a pretty big light bulb! In this sentence, the pronoun “it” could, in theory, refer to “room,” “chair,” “desk” or “light bulb.” If more than one potential antecedent presents itself, readers tend to match the pronoun to the last-mentioned noun, in this case “light bulb.” Let’s fix the absurdity. We could repeat the antecedent, but if we do, we get an inelegant pair of sentences:

The room contained a chair, a desk and a lone light bulb. The room was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.

Let’s just strip away the pronouns and say what we mean exactly:

The room, twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide, contained a chair, a desk and a lone light bulb.

Regulation 4: Check your pronoun-antecedent agreement.

Speakers and writers often use the plural pronoun “they” to refer back to a singular subject of unknown gender, as in An improv comedian must think on their feet. The plural pronoun “their” doesn’t match up with the singular noun “comedian.” Granted, it can sound awkward to write An improv comedian must think on his or her feet, especially if you continue describing the antics of the genderless person. You don’t want to keep writing “he or she,” “his or her” or “him or her.”

Some grammarians allow a plural pronoun to refer back to a singular subject if the gender is unknown. While it might be all right to do so in informal speech, I recommend rewording the sentence and avoiding this problem. In a longer work, you can choose to alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, or you can make the antecedent plural: Improv comedians must think on their feet.

Now it’s your turn to think on your feet. Please help the pronouns in these Criminal Sentences get on the right base, and send your rewrites to

1. Me Tarzan, you Jane.
2. Bill wrestled with Gunther. He eventually won the bout.
3. A writer must choose their words carefully.
4. After he arrived at the hospital room, the chaplain comforted the widower.
5. Between you and I, I don’t like getting up early.

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