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Pondering Personal Pronouns
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
September 4, 2014
What Pronouns Do
Pronouns are little words that represent other words, technically known as antecedents. Pronouns let us write and talk without repeating names or nouns over and over. This saves time and energy, as names and nouns are generally longer and require more effort. Here's a two-sentence example written without pronouns:
(A) When Henry woke up Henry discovered to Henry's disappointment that Henry's coffee machine was broken. Henry spent Henry's entire morning trying to fix Henry's coffee machine.
Here's the same information with pronouns:
(B) When Henry woke up he discovered to his disappointment that his coffee machine was broken. He spent his entire morning trying to fix it.
Both paragraphs convey essentially the same meaning, but (A) feels unwieldy, doesn't it? I cannot explain why we use pronouns, but all the languages that I have encountered use them. This doesn't mean that every language does, but pronouns are certainly common.
Characteristics of Personal Pronouns
Personal pronouns are usually used, not surprisingly, to refer to persons, but the definition goes deeper than that. You are probably aware of the significance of choosing between first person, second person, and third person when setting up your narrative. This is the sort of person being referred to when discussing personal pronouns.
Personal pronouns can be characterized along several dimensions associated with the person that they represent as well as their function within the sentence. These dimensions are extremely useful, because they can be used to associate pronouns with different antecedents and help readers and listeners distinguish between them.
Gender. In English the gender (sex) of pronouns is determined by the sex of the antecedent. We have three basic genders: male (he); female (she); and neuter (it).
Note that this is not how many other languages work, which assign gender to nouns following other criteria, sometimes according to the physical sex of the noun, and sometimes not. French has no neuter gender, and so a door (la porte) is feminine, while in German a girl (das Mädchen) is neuter. Gender is one of the few ways in which English is actually more logical than other languages.
Singular Versus Plural. Pronouns are also distinguished by whether their antecedents are one being or more than one. Examples include "he/she/it" versus "they" and "I" versus "we." An old-fashioned singular version of "you" is "thou," but "thou" is rarely used these days, except perhaps in hymnals.
Case. The case of a pronoun refers to its function within a sentence. Pronouns used as subjects in sentences are usually "he," "she," "I," "we," "they"; the pronouns that serve as objects in sentences are "him," "her," "me," "us," and "them." "You" does double duty as both subject and object. There are also possessive versions of the pronouns: "my/mine"; "our/ours"; "your/yours"; "their/theirs"; "her/hers"; and "his," and reflexive/intensive versions of pronouns: "myself," "yourself," and so on.
Formality. The idea here is that one uses different, formal pronouns when addressing people for whom one has great respect. This is not an issue in English these days, but you may encounter it in other languages.
This article cannot cover all the rules regarding the usage of personal pronouns. Now that we have covered some of the basics, which makes it easier to discuss pronouns, let's move on to some of the issues and challenges that crop up for writers.
Fluidity Versus Clarity
Unless you are writing something very short, you will probably use pronouns in your writing. Generally you want to make your writing flow while keeping the meaning clear. These goals are in conflict. Fluid writing tends to use more pronouns, while very clear writing tends to use fewer. The challenge is to strike the right balance.
A pronoun's antecedent is generally understood to be the most recent name or noun that it could logically represent. For example:
Sally was making her son Jimmy breakfast; she asked him if he wanted sausage or bacon with his eggs.
As Sally and Jimmy have different genders, there is no chance of confounding the antecedents of the pronouns. But what if Dad is doing the cooking? Then we get:
James was making his son Jimmy breakfast; he asked him if he wanted sausage or bacon with his eggs.
The antecedents of these pronouns are fairly clear from context. However, if you continue writing about James and Jimmy you will need to include names or nouns in order to keep readers from becoming confused. If you tire of writing these names over and over, or if you believe that your readers will become irritated if they have to read names too often, you can use nouns instead, such as "the father" and "the son" when "he" and "him" will not do.
How often should you use antecedents, even when it is not a matter of clarity? I think that it is worth considering, at a minimum, reintroducing the names of characters at the beginnings of scenes and chapters. Remember, readers often put books down when they finish a chapter. It is a kindness to remind them of characters' names when the readers resume the story. Furthermore, when you change scenes, your readers may not be sure which characters are present. It is hospitable to let them know the names of who is there.
The above are minimal suggestions, and they are only suggestions; you may have reasons for not letting readers know. Depending on the lengths of your scenes and your chapters and the number of characters in your story, you will probably need more frequent reminders of what the antecedents represent. And today, when people read stories on smaller and smaller screens, you may want to take even more care to help your readers know exactly who is doing what.
There are some pronouns that do not require antecedents. "Everyone" is one, and "one" is another. Grammarians frown upon the frequently used "they," but it is common to hear statements such as:
They say that beef is bad for your health.
In this case "they" has no antecedent and strict grammarians complain about it. I'm not one of those people; I think "they" represents general expertise believed to exist out in the population (or nowadays, the Internet). Certainly your characters may make statements like the one above.
There are other occasions when authors deliberately leave out antecedents. I have read many stories that opened with "He" or "She" or "I," and that did not reveal the name of the character for many pages. There are several reasons an author may choose to do this. Sometimes a character is doing something intriguing, and the author is trying to get the reader hooked and curious about the character before revealing who it is. Perhaps the character is unusual, such as Robert E. Lee's horse (Traveller), or one of the rabbits in Watership Down.
Another reason for using pronouns without antecedents is because the character may be the guilty party, such as a murderer in a detective story, and performing evil deeds in scenes scattered throughout the book. In this case the reader may accept not knowing who the "he" is in the scenes -- after all, the fun is in trying to figure out whodunit!
Then there are novels in which the name of the protagonist is never completely revealed, even when readers can glean plenty of other information about them. Two famous examples are Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In both cases the lack of name emphasizes the relative social inferiority of the protagonists; however, the books are less confusing than they could be because they are both told in the first person.
As you can see, there are artistic reasons for using pronouns without antecedents. However, it is my opinion -- and it is only an opinion -- that if you choose to use pronouns without antecedents, you should have some artistic reason for this choice.
Besides quibbles about "they," those ubiquitous, nebulous experts, pronoun usage has plenty of other grammatical gray areas. One of them involves case. It is common to say:
Me and Geoff went to the store.
Kate and myself have nothing to say to each other.
Grammarians will insist that "me" and "myself" should be replaced by "I" as "I" is the subject form of the first person singular. On the other hand, fewer objections are raised in dialogues such as:
"Who ate the last croissant?"
The "Me" should technically be replaced by "I" but most people agree that the word "I" by itself sounds odd. One way to get around this is to include the verb, and rewrite the conversational bit as:
"Who ate the last croissant?"
By the way, pronouns in other languages don't follow the same rules. I once listened to a lecture by the linguist John McWhorter, who proposed that there was really no reason that we shouldn't be able to say sentences such as, "Me and Geoff went to the store." Other languages permit such constructions. I'm not going to tell you what you should do in these cases, except that you should consider your characters, story and audience, and make your choices accordingly.
Gender Neutrality and Singular Versus Plural
I'm probably older than many readers out there, so I remember the fits and starts that have been made in the attempt to write in a gender-neutral manner. For most of time, the male pronoun "he" was used, and women were assumed to be included, or excluded -- we were simply not worth a second thought. Writers gradually became more politically correct, but the proposed solutions were cumbersome. For a while the phrase "he or she" was prevalent, but a three-word pronoun phrase defeats a pronoun's main purpose: smooth, easy writing. Another approach to staying gender-neutral was to alternate between "he" and "she" within passages, but this was awkward and even confusing and called attention to pronouns when the point is to ignore them. Both solutions are still used but neither, in my opinion, is satisfactory.
I remember laughing, decades ago, when I saw a little survey on the table of a restaurant using "themself." This word is an affront to grammarians, because the word combines a plural pronoun, "them," with a singular, "self." All these years later my word processor still does not like the construction "themself" and keeps trying to replaces it with "themselves." Despite my initial dismissive response to "themself," over the years I have observed that the pronoun "they" has been selected by the people (or selected by the "they" discussed above) as the most gender-neutral option. Now I react more tolerantly to constructions such as "themself." "They" is gender neutral, but the word has a problem in that "they" is plural. Frequently paragraphs and even sentences become a sad mix of singular and plural; here's an example:
The cook should clean the griddle after they have used it.
The above is gender-neutral and my word processor does not object to it. Nevertheless, when I find similar passages in my own writing, I generally rewrite them to eliminate the awkwardness.
Cooks should clean the griddle after they have used it.
Perhaps my bias against the first sentence is influenced by my generation. However, I figure if it grates on me, it probably grates on at least a subset of my readers.
As I mentioned above, there is plenty more to pronouns than could be covered in this little article. So please check out the references for more information and especially for more clarity with respect to the rules. Language keeps changing, so the rules and the suggestions that I've described may not apply in fifty years -- or maybe not even in five.
And, as it may be clear to some from the examples that I wrote most of this article while I was thinking about breakfast. With that said, let me wish you a very nice day!
"The Story of Human Language," given by John McWhorter, offered by The Great Courses.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.