Pronoun Confusion: Who Is the Sentence About?

grammar tip pronoun confusion All right, boys and girls, it’s time once again for your friendly, neighborhood grammar police report. Today we’re going to talk about Pronoun Confusion, those times when we have multiple characters of the same sex in a single scene, and how we keep track of them.

One of the chronic issues that we as authors have to be aware of is the fact that we have all the details of our stories in our brains, while our readers only have as much as we’ve given them. When I’m writing, I’m actually watching a movie in my head. I see my characters move, I hear them speak, and of course I know their motives and feelings. Having all this information sometimes translates into complacency; I know what my characters are doing, so it should be obvious to the reader, right? No, not always.

Basically speaking, whoever is the subject of one sentence is assumed to be the subject of the next, unless and until we are told otherwise. Starting a new paragraph gives us a visual clue that perhaps the subject may change, but within a paragraph, we need to make sure that, if we change subjects, we make it very clear to the reader.

I found a section in one book I was reading that was similar to the sentences below.

The dog snatched the rat from its rocky den. He shook the rodent madly, snapping its neck in the process. The rat died instantly. He turned away and trotted off.

Now, either the dead rat pulled off a really neat trick and trotted away or the author forgot that basic tenant I mentioned above. In the third sentence, the rat died. He’s the subject of that sentence and as such becomes the antecedent to any following pronouns. In the next sentence, he trotted off, the he referring back to the last antecedent. Obviously, the author was actually switching back to the dog as the subject of that fourth sentence, and it probably made perfect sense to her, but I had to do a double-take. We really don’t want our readers doing a lot of double-takes. Whiplash is not conducive to enjoyable reading.

Here’s another example, similar to what I found in a different book:

She now faced a difficult decision. She had to move George from the hospital. His doctor had suggested a hospice. He’d taken a sudden turn for the worse the week before, and they could do nothing more for him in the hospital.

The subject of the third sentence is the doctor, but in the very next sentence, we see that he has taken a turn for the worse. That’s a drag when your doctor’s so bad off that he has to leave the hospital. But no, obviously this author was referring back to the male patient; he just forgot to make that clear to us.

Another example I’ve changed to protect the guilty:

Sam, across the room, pointed to the smart phone hanging in its holster on Fred’s belt. He nodded, pulling it out and turning it on to display the images.

Sam is the subject of the first sentence, yet in the second sentence, he pulls out the phone. Nope, not really; it was Fred who did that. Either that, or Sam has really long arms.

And one more:

Smith hunkered down in the shadows backstage. Jones lay unconscious on the stage floor. As soon as the police raised the curtain, Jones would be spotted. There was no way he’d be able to get his friend out before they were discovered.

Same stuff, different day. Jones is the subject of the second and third sentence, yet the fourth sentence refers to he being able to get his friend out. He, of course, is Smith, not Jones. Jones was not going to be getting anyone anywhere, at least not as long as he was unconscious.

In the grand scheme of things, this may seem like nit-picking to some. I realize that with a quick thought process, a quick deduction or a very brief re-read, readers will understand what’s really going on. Pronoun confusion is certainly not going to befuddle readers to the point of frustration, but it does throw a speed bump down for them and, miniscule or not, they do have to stop, think, then re-engage. My goal has always been and will always be to lay down a smooth road of words so my reader can roll easily along. Speed bumps are annoying. I don’t know about you, but I aim to have as few of them in my books as possible.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

50 thoughts on “Pronoun Confusion: Who Is the Sentence About?”

  1. I suspect this is why so many authors tend to overuse their character names, in an attempt to avoid this kind of misreading.

    I don’t think it’s nitpicking, though. Maybe that’s because I’m also an editor. Oh, and in that capacity, and in a spirit of constructive input, I’d replace tenant with tenet and flag miniscule as an acceptable variant of minuscule, with a warning to avoid it in more formal writing! 🙂

  2. Nice job. (A rule that I try to follow is: If there is any confusion at all about who is speaking, I use the person’s name. That usually covers it.)

  3. Some of this seems more confusing than it should be. You also need to take the paragraph or sentences in context. I seldom become confused while deciphering pronouns unless the sentences make absolutely no sense.

    When I saw the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about whether to use “who” or “whom” in a sentence. For example, I’d have probably written, Whom Is the Sentence About? LOL. How is that for pronoun confusion? All of this kind of stuff can drive authors nuts! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Linda. I think a lot of this is about flow. Trying to follow too many characters in one paragraph can make it confusing.
      But you’re right about the whom! We wrestled with the title a bit, massaged it a few times, but missed that. Thanks!

      1. Yikes, I don’t necessarily agree with that – while I see the point, I was taught that “Who” is the subject in this case, so I wouldn’t use whom. But I know the rules are constantly changing, and I refuse to change with them.

        1. I was thinking if you reversed it, “The sentence is about whom?” that worked. But I don’t know for sure. That’s one aspect of grammar I’ve never been motivated to memorize. I’m sure someone here can give us the definitive answer.

          1. Yeah, I thought of that, too… But it still didn’t sound right. If we reworded it to “About Whom Is This Sentence” then that would totally work, albeit sound incredibly awkward.

  4. “Whom is the sentence about?” is actually correct, but as with the earlier example of miniscule/minuscule (only more so), it’s pretty much okay to use “who” in order to avoid sounding incredibly formal and stiff. Official reports and academia, sure, but a blog post? I’d stick with the informal. It’s not so much that the rules are always changing, it’s more that we allow for context now, and many of the so-called “rules” we were taught in school weren’t rules either. The whole thing is fascinating, and it’s why we love this damn language. 🙂

      1. Kat, as you know, I’m such a word nerd I love this stuff so much I’d probably marry it, so you’re welcome! 🙂

        As you rightly point out, it comes down t subject and object usually. But there’s also that handy (if a little sexist) mnemonic, whereby you answer the question and see if he or him (which correspond to who or whom) is correct. In other words: “Who(m) is the sentence about?” Answer: “The sentence is about him” (you wouldn’t say “The sentence is about he”). Uh, I probably explained that really badly!

        1. I thought of that, too. Interesting – but I just hated the way starting a sentence with “whom” sounded. You explained it perfectly. 🙂

    1. I agree with you, David. “Who” sounded so right to me in this case that I had to look up the rule. “Whom is the sentence about?” sounded so stuffy and pedantic that I was sure it couldn’t be correct.

      I wonder how long it will be before English drops “whom” entirely?

      1. I think we’re on the way. Formal language is one thing, but yeah, outside of such uses as “to whom,” I’d say it’s dying a slow and some would say agonizing death. But that’s because it’s a living, vital language, so it’s all good.

        We did drop thou, for the most part (outside of some parts of Scotland and Northern England), although some lament its passing, given it’s the equivalent of tu in French and tú in Spanish, a less formal way of saying you. We win some, we lose some. 🙂

  5. I’ve just come in on the end of this little discussion and it seems you guys have covered everything, clearing up any possible confusion. Nice post, Melissa.

  6. Me too, me too. 🙁 Sometimes the only way out is to re-write the whole paragraph. Wish there was a way the writer could just point and be done with it!

    1. Yeah, sometimes it does take a re-write to get the order correct. I think some writers jump from character to character (probably more so in action scenes) rather than dedicate a full paragraph to one character, then move on. It’s one of those soft rules that you can break, as long as you know the guidelines and you do it well.

  7. I love the idea of the dead rat trotting off. Zombie Rat rules again! Yeah!

    Very nicely explained, Melissa, and a timely reminder as I edit the manuscript I’m currently working on to check for just this sort of confusion. Thanks.

  8. *Raises hand* Yes, I am one of the guilty. Thank heavens I have a wonderful editor that catches those goofs! And when she points them out to me, it helps me learn to look for them later and hopefully not make the same mistake again. But you know how it goes, you get caught in the heat of the moment and write like a mad person, and then it happens…. Bless the editors!

    1. Obviously, Kathy, you are not alone. I doubt there’s a one of us here who hasn’t stumbled on this issue. Yes, good news is fresh eyes can usually pick it out for us, and we do get better attuned to it as we go. So much of this is just being aware.

  9. Great post, Melissa. Pronoun confusion has me rereading often. This post is getting responses from editors. That is interesting. I am not an editor. Never have been, and do not aspire to become one. I could not face what you brave souls do. I smiled at David Antrobus’s comment about overuse of a character’s name. I suspect it is a pet peeve. Yet here is what I know: Using a character’s name for clarity works. I was once on the cusp of hiring an indie editor until I came across her scathing post against using “said.” Pet peeve. She preferred action dialogue tags. IMO, both tags can be effective and correct.

    1. Jackie, you make a good point; all the tools in our writers’ kitbag can be used well and badly (and we all have our pet peeves about this tool or that). Regarding the overuse of a character’s name, I’ve found I can usually change it up with some sort of descriptor: the doctor, the writer, the redhead, the younger man. In my non-fiction book, writing about my Aunt Marcia Gates and my grandmother (also Marcia Gates), I was hard-pressed to find other ways to differentiate them, but it was critical that I did so. I used elder/younger, mother/daughter, etc., but it was a constant concern to keep the two separate and keep the reader clear about who (whom?) I was describing.

    2. A good editor won’t impose their “pet peeves” on an author, so no. There are a kazillion grey (gray!) areas in fiction, and since the editor’s prime directive, so to speak, is “do no harm,” it would be unprofessional to strong-arm an author into conforming to an individual editor’s subjective tastes. That said, the overuse of a character name can indeed be problematic, regardless of any individual’s opinion.

      Here’s an example:

      “Adam thought Eve was a bit of a jerk. Adam didn’t like how Eve kept whispering with the snake.”

      Which would read slightly better (unless you’re going for a specific effect, of course) if you wrote:

      “Adam thought Eve was a bit of a jerk. He didn’t like how she kept whispering with the snake.”

      The other example I see from a great number of authors is the use of character names in dialogue, often as a method of indicating for the reader the current speaker. It’s not a “pet peeve” to say this is poor writing; it’s well established as problematic. Basically, anything that can take a reader out of a narrative, as Melissa says in the original post here, is something that needs to be at the very least flagged.

      Similarly, the editor you mentioned was wrong. There’s nothing wrong with “said,” and as you say, using a mix of tags and beats is probably preferable to sticking with only one.

      Trust me, there are plenty of good editors out there who are sensitive to authors, many of them because they themselves are also writers.

      1. Well said, David. I tell all of my editing clients that my suggestions are only that, and they are the final authority. It’s their story and only they know how they want to tell it. But if I give them a good reason for what I’m suggesting, they’re normally willing to listen and consider. It’s a dance, not a wrestling contest.

      2. I’m reading a trad-pubbed fantasy series right now (Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy) where the characters constantly call each other by name in nearly every bit of dialogue — even when there are only two speakers. It’s starting to drive me a little bit nuts….

        1. is so common, especially to new authors. I usually make my pitch, flag every example so they can make a decision on each one, then I send them two or three solid, reputable links that advise strongly against this habit. It’s so unnatural to how people talk (although I couldn’t resist throwing in your name at the beginning of this comment, lol).

          We tend to only use a person’s name when we’re being directive, or are trying to ingratiate ourselves. You listen to most conversations and people simply don’t do it all that much.

          Ha, and it’s true: once you notice it, you can’t unnotice it!

  10. Good post. The pronoun game, like you said, is always tricky for authors because we see what we mean in our heads. We can read the sentence a hundred times and never see it as an issue. That’s why editors are so important. That fresh eye helps a lot.

  11. Funny update–I just started on a new book and I have a plethora of female characters: the protagonist, her mother, her aunt, and more. I am so aware of this pronoun business now that I’m being super-duper, extra careful when I write paragraphs that include several of the women. Hard work!

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