Post 78

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago
Tags: copyediting, flow, attributions, pronouns, adjectives Category: Writing tips

Avoiding Literary Speed Bumps: Part 3 Ambiguous Pronouns

You open the latest Amish steampunk mystery romance and you’re floored by the first line:

Morwenna threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn and she smiled.

You read the sentence again, not because you’re savouring the beautiful words, but because you’re not sure what the author meant. Who smiled? Morwenna or Gwendolyn?

This is an example of an ambiguous attribution. We often fail to recognise these in our own writing because we know what we mean. We know that Morwenna is the one smiling, but it’s not obvious to the reader. We’ll look at some common attribution problems over the next few weeks. In today’s post, I’ll focus on problems with ambiguous pronouns and possessive adjectives.

A pronoun is a word that can take the place of a noun (e.g. he, she, him, her, they, them, it, this, that, these). A possessive adjective modifies a noun to show ownership (e.g. Their team won the premiership). This is different from a possessive pronoun (e.g. The Chiko Roll is mine). If you’re starting to have a grammatical panic attack, stay calm! All you need to know here is that little words like ‘her’, ‘them’ and ‘this’ can cause a world of confusion if not used correctly. (However, if you do find your pulse quickening at the thought of all those lovely grammar rules, you can find some great explanations and examples of pronoun usage here.)

If you want to ensure that the meaning of a pronoun or possessive adjective is clear, you could use the name of the person or thing each time (e.g. ‘Morwenna threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn, and then Morwenna smiled’). However, that can sound pedantic and repetitive. A more elegant solution can often be achieved by rephrasing the sentence or dividing it in two. For example:

Morwenna smiled as she threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn.

Morwenna couldn’t help smiling as she threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn.

Smiling, Morwenna threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn. (Use this one sparingly.)

Morwenna threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn and smiled. (By deleting 'she' altogether, Morwenna is still the subject of the sentence, so we know she is the one smiling.)

Morwenna threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn. She smiled as her sister caught the bag at full stretch.

Of course if you meant that Gwendolyn was the one smiling, you would say it differently.

Morwenna threw the bag of stardust to Gwendolyn. The younger girl smiled as she caught the bag at full stretch.

Words like ‘this’, ‘that’ or ‘these’ can also be problematic, especially if they follow more than one point. For example:

Winter Olympians can easily break a leg if they fall heavily during an event. A figure skater might over-rotate on a jump; a slalom skier could slam into a gate; or a luger could whiz over the side of the course, never to be seen again. Injuries can be serious if rescue crews can’t reach the athlete quickly. This needs further investigation.

In that last sentence, it’s not clear whether ‘this’ refers to the Winter Olympics as a whole, safety of athletes, the speed at which rescue crews can reach the scene, or something else. If a word like ‘this’ follows more than one point, try adding a word or two of clarification, or rephrase the sentence altogether. For example:

This delay in emergency response time needs further investigation.

Safety procedures at the Winter Olympics need further investigation.

Have a look at your latest work-in-progress and check your pronouns and possessive adjectives. Could any of your sentences be clearer in that regard? If you fix them now, your readers will sail through your words without hitting that rogue wave. If you’d like to share any examples of ambiguous pronouns and some solutions, I’d love to hear from you.

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