Pronoun Phobic

Do you have a phobia about using pronouns? Is your writing littered with Jane did this. A few minutes later, Jane did that. Jane was very happy with her work. Or John eyed the tall blonde beauty strutting past him. John’s eyes widened as he realized she was the girl he’d called uglier than sin back in high school. To John’s utter dismay, this beautiful woman in front of him was just the person John had been searching for all of his life.

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. It is most prevalent when names are used. In fact, it keeps our writing from sounding as if we’re back in third grade and just learning about pronouns. The rules governing pronoun use can be confusing, but there are ways to get around those rules and still make your story understandable.

Of course, there are also excuses why we don’t use pronouns. The biggest one is that we, as writers, are afraid our readers won’t understand who we’re referring to if we do drop a pronoun on them.

Let us first examine the different types of pronouns. There are three and they are simple to remember.

Subject pronouns: I, he, she, we, you, they, who, whoever—all the pronouns that identify the subject of the sentence.

Object pronouns: Me, him, her, us, them, whom, what, and you—these are the pronouns that are the direct or indirect object of the very, or the object of the preposition.

Possessive pronouns: Yours, mine, theirs, ours, hers, his, their, his, her, your—these pronouns indicate ownership.

Wow! You’re thinking right about now. That’s so simple. I can now use pronouns without thinking. Hold up there. There is one very important rule you should know about their use. A sentence must be written so that the reader isn’t confused as to whom you are referring.

For instance, a sentence such as Jane was very happy with her work. She perfected the new technique with hours—this is perfectly acceptable use of a pronoun.

This however, isn’t: Jane and Maria worked as a team to finish the job. She was happy with their work, knowing she would soon have the promotion she’d been after for years. Your reader won’t know who “she” belongs to in this sentence. Most will assume you mean Jane, but what if you meant Maria? How will they know.

A rule of thumb I learned many years ago, when I first began writing seriously is that you should use the  name of your main character at least once in each paragraph, followed by the appropriate pronoun, unless there is another character of the same gender that comes later in the paragraph. Then you can use the name more than once.

Pronouns are confusing to learn how to use. No one will argue about that. But writers evolve as they work with their craft. Learning how to construct your sentences so that they are clear and concise will soon be in your reach if you take a moment to discover all the uses for pronouns, and then insert them properly.


Jack Strandburg said…
To me, it comes down to reading through the manuscript (even aloud might help). During (yet another) revision to my latest novel, I replaced quite a number of names with pronouns. I think it's best to trust your judgment but of course if the scene has more than two characters, pronouns can be used only within the paragraph where it is clear to the reader what character is speaking or acting.