Writing Tip #41

Pronoun primer. Let’s face it: I’ve got nothing on Grammar Girl, whom I go to all the time when I have a question about word use, but I thought I’d take a bit of time to talk about pronouns. When I edit my own writing, one of the first things I usually take a look at are my pronouns, which, in my creative frenzy, I tend to use incorrectly. In writing, pronouns must:

  1. Agree in number. Think of a sentence as a scale that has to be balanced on both sides with the same number of people. So if “a teacher” gives you an “F,” “they” don’t suck — “he” or “she” does. Or when “a person” gets a speeding ticket, “they” don’t go to traffic court, “he” or “she” will.
  2. Agree in person. I see this error all the time when I’m editing writers, especially when it comes to the second person use of “you.” Here’s an example:
    People tend to love Aunt Edna’s baking; you can wolf down one of her cupcakes in three seconds flat.

    This sentence is incorrect. Again, think of the scale. It has to be the same on both sides. But here the first independent clause is in third person, and the second is in second person. To fix that, you should change the second part to: “They” can wolf down one of her cupcakes in three seconds flat.
  3. A pronoun must clearly refer to a noun — not necessarily in the same sentence, but somewhere in the immediate vicinity.
    This is another frequent error I come across. For example:
    Jack is having a birthday party on Saturday and is inviting Griffin. He’s such a nice boy.

    Who’s the nice boy? Is it Jack or Griffin? The sentence is vague. The problem can be remedied many ways:
    If the nice boy is Jack: Jack is such a nice boy — he’s having a birthday party on Saturday and is inviting Griffin.
    If the nice boy is Griffin: Jack is having a birthday party on Saturday and is inviting Griffin, who is such a nice boy.

When you’re revising your work, make sure to take a good look at your pronouns to make sure they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, which is “replace” a noun — clearly and precisely.

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