From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Wednesday, September 7

I Had to Do This: Clarifying Ambiguous Pronouns

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 the reader. It can trip them up and make them pause to figure out what we mean.

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

Could be the shotgun, since that was the thing Bob grabbed. "The shotgun" wasn't enough.

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

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

In fact, often the last noun mentioned before the pronoun is the one most commonly associated with the pronoun, so one might think "it" refers to the axe here. "The axe" wasn't enough.

Possible Fixes:
Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the axe. 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 axe. A single box of shells wasn't enough, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.
Of course this still feels vague to me, so I'd probably add a few more words.
Bob grabbed the shotgun and ran for the box of shells sitting on a crate by the axe. A single box of shells wasn't enough to put down all the zombies heading his way, 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 axe. The axe wouldn't be enough if he got swarmed, but he needed every weapon he could find right now.
He and she can also leave a reader scratching their heads.
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 dialog. 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 commenters found a great ambiguity here and it's worth sharing because it really does prove the point and addressing a common 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 it 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.

Tiny words those pronouns, but they can cause so much confusion sometimes. While doing a find to check 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?