Jun 102010

9.  Pronouns Without Antecedents Are Abstractions.

I’m going to share with NC the opening of the first story I submitted to Doug this semester.  This paragraph was not one of my finer moments as a student, but it nicely illustrates the way pronouns can muddle clarity and muck up a story.

We don’t like the sun, his eyes say when they speak.  They tell him they want darkness, rest and a release from the prison of sight.  It’s a tiresome, thankless job, they say, this constant work.”

The paragraph contains thirty-six words and nine pronouns.  Nine!  Fully one quarter of the paragraph is made up of pronouns, most without antecedents.  (Not to mention speaking eyes and italicized eye-speech.  What can I say?  I had just moved back from Spain and the reverse culture shock was brutal.)  I was not trying to be intentionally abstract and confusing.  If I’m honest, I was trying to sound interesting, mysterious, perhaps a little vague, but my exuberant use of pronouns severed the paragraph’s clarity lines, unmooring the writing into a sea of vagueness.  Using pronouns made sense initially, but toward what end?  By keeping proper names out and using pronouns, I created a false intimacy with the reader.  The intimacy created with this paragraph was unearned.  The slight benefit of being abstract (by using pronouns) rendered only confusion, frustration and fuzzy logic.  I’ve seen it done well in stories and novels before, but I wasn’t pulling it off.  Instead, I had created an incoherent mess!

I quickly learned from this experience (and the accompanying packet letter which scorched my hands) that a pronoun without an antecedent is an abstraction.   Doug wrote the following: “Pronouns are abstractions, they refer to other words, they are not concrete and easily identifiable.”  (Then the shredding began in earnest! )

I’d never really thought about pronouns as abstractions before.  I used them willy-nilly, inserting pronouns freely and effortlessly as I wrote, not recognizing that my use of pronouns created a swirling ball of confusion.  The reasons now seem obvious:  As I wrote, I understood implicitly what each pronoun referred to.  I knew ‘him’ referred to a character, and ‘they’ referred to a voice inside this character’s head.  But a reader would not understand the missing antecedents, and would quickly tire of the confusion.  Did I say nine pronouns?

Theodore A. Rees Cheney, in his wonderful little craft book, Getting the Words Right, addresses the issues of pronoun ambiguity.  “Pronouns make speech clearer by serving as a shortened reference to something previously mentioned.”   Cheney continues:

For pronouns to do their job, it must be clear what they refer back to.  We are much more tolerant of poor referencing in conversation than in writing because in conversation we receive other clues (sometimes subliminally) to the antecedent.  However, if a reader is forced to guess at an antecedent, there’s a better than even chance he’ll guess incorrectly.  A careful writer does not want his reader confused, even momentarily, so he watches his pronouns as carefully as he does his briefcase in a restaurant.

Doug relentlessly stalked my stories for pronouns without antecedents.  I often revised sentences with the sole intent of taking out as many pronouns as I could.  Clarity, again.  (See #10.) Pronoun use often simplified my sentences at the expense of clarity.

Up Next: #8: My Dirty Little Secret: Grammar Issues.

-Rich Farrell

  9 Responses to “#9 of The Top 10 Things I Learned This Semester: (Invitation to a Re-shredding)”

  1. Rich, This is really good. Crystal clear and well-written. You have a real talent for writing about your own peccadilloes and turning them into a larger lesson for writers. If I hadn’t already given you credit for the semester, I would now for sure. 🙂

    Just remember though, with you I was a pussycat. You never experienced the full horror.


  2. It’s still fun to complain, though. Of course now I’m paranoid that you didn’t give me the full treatment because I wasn’t worthy! 🙂

    • Rich, self-doubt and paranoia are 99% of a writer’s personality–you really are almost there.

      • What does that mean? Are you saying that I’m not paranoid enough? Or too much? Please stop these riddles. I’m not sure what to think. 🙂

        On another note: By giving this contest an actual award(the Scotch), you’ve entered a whole new realm of hurt and anxiety for us NC followers. Though I have to admit that yesterday I spent several pleasant minutes wandering the aisles of a liqour store checking out the single malt shelves. Talisker is my personal fave.

        • Actually, to be frank, and just between us, you’re not quite paranoid enough. Getting there though. There’s a frantic tone in this last comment that feels right.

          Talisker, the magic word! The Secret Numero Cinq Word of Power. (Along with blue dog.)

          • Lovin’ the irony of a “just between us” post. You two are too much.
            Rich – get back to work. You could have saved me $10,000 if you would have posted these tips earlier. Am deleting all the pronouns in my work, and for that matter, my life.

  3. Rich,
    You’re brilliant! You’re already writing your senior lecture!!!!
    I can see you doing all ten of these for the audience!

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