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Monday, May 18

I Had to Do This: Clarifying Ambiguous Pronouns

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Ambiguous pronouns can muddy a scene, and cause unintentional hilarity. Make sure yours are clear. 

Ambiguous pronouns creep into our work and they're not always easy to spot. We know what they refer to because we wrote them, but if the pronoun isn't near what the referenced noun was, or there are a lot of nouns in the sentence, it's not always clear to readers. It can trip them up and make them pause to figure out what we mean.

It, this, and that are prime offenders.

Exactly what is it referring to?


It is used often when writing, and most of the time it's easy to figure out what it refers to.

Let's try some examples:
Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the ax. It wasn't enough, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.
Okay, what is the "it" here referring to?


It could be the shotgun, since that was what Bob grabbed. "The shotgun wasn't enough..."

It could be the box of shells, since that's what Bob was running for. "One box of shells wasn't enough..."

It could be the ax, since he needed every weapon he could find. "The ax wasn't enough..."

It could also be all the items listed. "This arsenal" wasn't enough. "The stuff he had with him" wasn't enough.

The last noun mentioned before the pronoun is the one most commonly associated with the pronoun, so the item "it" refers to is probably the ax. But does it?

Possible Fixes:
Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the ax. One lousy shotgun wasn't enough, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.

Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the ax. A single box of shells wasn't enough, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.
A box of shells isn't technically a weapon, so I'd probably tweak it even more:
Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the ax. An ax wasn't enough if a herd of zombies swarmed him, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.
Sometimes a vague pronoun needs a little help to make the sentence work as intended, so don't be afraid to edit the whole sentence if you need to.
Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the ax. The ax wouldn't be enough if he got swarmed, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.
(Here's more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

He and she can also leave a reader scratching their heads.


Using names too often can make the prose clunky, but throw in too many ambiguous pronouns and readers can lose track of who is doing what.
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun while Gary dug into his pockets for the keys. He tripped and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
Who tripped?

Since the "he" is closest to Gary, it reads like Gary tripped.

But this is Bob's sentence since it has his dialogue. Bob is technically the subject of this bit, so it could easily be Bob.

Possible Fixes:
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun while Gary dug into his pockets for the keys. Bob tripped and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
Or
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun while Gary dug into his pockets for the keys. Gary tripped and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
ETA: A commenter found a great ambiguity here and it's worth sharing because it really does prove the point and addressing a common (and humorous) pitfall.
"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun while Gary dug into his pockets for the keys. Bob tripped and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
Whose pockets did Gary dig into?

You could easily argue that it's obvious Gary dug into his own pockets, because that's the most natural thing to do here. If he'd gone into Bob's pockets, more would have been made of it for the humor. But it is possible Gary had to go into Bob's pockets. However, it would sound really strange to say "Gary dug into his own pockets for the keys." Well duh, of course he did.

For this, tweaking a few words isn't going to fix that particular pronoun, which is why multiple things going on in one sentence often lead to confusion.

Possible fix:
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun.

Gary dug into his pockets for the keys, hands shaking. Bob stumbled and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
Moving Gary to his own line helps clarify the pronoun issue. It gets "his" away from Bob. Of course, then you have the awkward "Bob stumbled" part that feels kinda tacked on there at the end, but that's a different problem. I'd probably add a line or two more to smooth that out, but, that's a whole post of its own.

(Here's more on Do You Get My Meaning? Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing)

Tiny words those pronouns, but they can cause so much confusion sometimes. While searching for every single instance of it, this, that, he, and she is way more than anyone wants to do, it is worth keeping an eye out for places where an ambiguous pronoun might be tripping up your reader. Especially if you've gotten a critique where someone was confused in one area that made perfect sense to you. The culprit there, could be one of these little suckers.

Have pronouns ever tripped you up? 

*Originally published may 2010. Last updated May 2020.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.

Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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25 comments:

  1. I'm always trying to weed out the weird pronouns out of my WIP. But these are great examples, thanks for the reminder!

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  2. Yep, you definitely have to watch out for these. Another great post :)

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  3. Thank you. I'm sure I've been mindful of the pronouns, but these descriptions put it into perspective. (Hugs)Indigo

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  4. In your first example, "it" could also refer to all of Bob's actions in the first sentence. As in, his effort was not enough. I think it's a good example of ambiguity. Good stuff to point out.

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  5. These are the things I can pick up in my CPs stuff, but they still sneak into my own writing. I think a lot of times it's because I move sentences around for flow, and those pesky pronouns protest.

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  6. Good examples. I try to catch them but occasionally I need my critique partner to catch them.

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  7. I'm curious what your fixes for these would be. This is a common issue for me as I'm sure it is for many people, but my problem is making the sentence more clear without doing things like using the characters name in every sentence, or just reusing the same word over and over again to refer to something.

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  8. I'm currently fighting this problem in my WiPs. Fixing it can be as simple as changing the pronoun to a noun, or it might require restructuring a sentence (or paragraph).

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  9. I'm probably guilty of using vague pronouns from time to time but I try not to. It is quite intrusive to the story when you have to stop and figure out what 'it' actually is before you can move on.
    Thanks for an interesting point and some good examples.

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  10. Using vague pronouns is probably my worst writing habit, well, that and always writing in present tense. After I get a scene down I have to go back and conjugate everything into past tense, then go through again and fix my pronouns. My first draft is usually nothing more than "She said" and "He went".

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  11. Colin, I'll edit and show what I'd do to fix them :)

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  12. Hey Janice, thanks for the edit! Those suggestions will really help. Btw, I appreciate the personal touch you have with your blog.

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  13. Thanks! It's more fun that way. Otherwise it's just me babbling on about stuff and who wants to read that? LOL.

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  14. This is a very, very tricky problem. The examples you listed are the easy ones. I've read some books ... actually, a lot of books where this "It" problem shows up, and in those instances I try re-writing the sentence. I fail at it :(

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  15. Good post! Critique buddies help a bunch with this one.

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  16. I find I catch a lot of these on my re-reads but never all. Good fix suggestions. Thanks.

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  17. Not relative to your post at all but I wanted you to know. My son finished The Shifter and LOVED it. He came home from school and said, "Where is the next one, Mom?" So we had to go and buy Blue Fire. If Darkfall would have been out he would have wanted that too. I guess we will pre-order on Amazon :)

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  18. @ColinF I think sometimes dialogue helps to mix in with a lot of description. At my critique group there's a story that's very action oriented, but the author tends to describe every motion. The feedback has been for him to choose pertient action details rather than every detail, which inevitably leads to a lot of pronouns and confusing directions of body parts. This is an extreme example, but I think it helps to break up action into smaller chunks and focus on making each line stand out.

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  19. Hey Janice. It's been a while since I've posted a comment, but I've had some problems with this in the past.

    I also found one of your correction sentences to include a confusing pronoun. I wonder if you caught it?

    This is the sentence...
    "Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun while Gary dug into his pockets for the keys. Bob tripped and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.

    Who's pockets did Gary dig into? Was it his own pockets or Bob's? Funny right?

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  20. Thanks all!

    Angie, that's awesome, thanks for letting me know. I'll have a smile all day from that.

    Stephsco, good advice there.

    Norman, LOL thanks for that! Yep, you could totally read it that way. That makes a good point in itself really. Readers will attribute the pronoun to the closest and most obvious, but things can go all kinds of ways. I'll have to edit that now :)

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  21. Great post and comments, thx: It will help me recognize this failing I have.

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  22. Sasha Anderson6/26/20, 6:16 AM

    Couldn't the 'It' in the first example also be the same 'It' found in 'It was raining'? I don't know what the technical term for that is...

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    1. I don't think so, because the example is used as a pronoun to refer to something previously mentioned, while "It was raining" refers to a concept or idea. "It wasn't enough" means something just mentioned wasn't enough. "It was raining" means rain is falling from the sky.

      I'm sure someone with an English degree can explain that better, but hopefully that helps :)

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    2. Sasha Anderson6/29/20, 6:06 AM

      Ok, thanks! :)

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