Pronouns. Tricky Little Suckers — Rule #30 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever


I’m dissecting the article Hunting Down the Pleonasm, by Allen Guthrie, using it as a cattle prod to search for little nasties in my manuscript.  Yep, you can join in the fun, too.  Let’s take a looksee at topic #30

30: Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that’s good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from ‘it’, you’ll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath! Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.

Wow… This is a rule I’ve never heard before.  Yes, I’ve corrected manuscripts where they’ve made an error like this, and I’ve had similar errors corrected in my own work… but counting backwards lie that… I never even thought of this trick.

This is great advice!  Many times I’ve written something and wondered if it was confusing.  This like trick may help a lot!

Try this in your own manuscript and see if it catches any errors.



13 responses to “Pronouns. Tricky Little Suckers — Rule #30 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever

  1. It’s always a problem…that referring back to the closest noun. Often calls (annoyingly) for a bit of rewriting for flow and meaning

  2. In your example, I think it’s not difficult for a reader to infer that Paul has actually been stabbed with the dagger. Where it becomes more of an issue is with attribution. That is, who did what or who said what. Even with the ‘last preceding noun’ rule, you can get confusion between characters over who said what.

    For instance, one story I wrote there was a boy and a dog, both male. It got so confusing with ‘he said’ that I actually made the dog female for the sake of clarity. (You wouldn’t believe how many school kids argue with me that the dog has to be a boy!)

    Recently, however, I’ve witnessed a number of constructions on broadcast news where it sounds like an inanimate object had motivations or similar mis-attribution. I’m failing to come up with a specific example, but it’s things like “the road killed another drunken driver.” I don’t think the road did anything — it was just lying there — but what does the sentence sound say?

  3. The biggest problem I had with my manuscripts when I first started writing (according to my writers group) was using too many pronouns, mostly of the he/she variety. While I am much more aware of how I use pronouns, now, I will have to remember this rule with ‘it’, as well. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  4. Hmm. New to me and I would make the assumption that the knife not the sheath was used for the stabbing, but I get it.
    Lately, I’ve noticed overuse of pronouns in my work. Grr.

  5. I can see the how the rule adds clarity. However, it needs to be balanced against confusion from convolution: for example, many readers will read “John removed the sheath from the knife and stabbed Paul with it” as John stabbing Paul with the sheath. At the point multiple objects are intertwined enough for the reader to not pick up the meaning without effort, the potential to make the tangle worse not better is great.

    So it is important to do more than just move pronouns and nouns so pairs are next to each other.

    • I had the same thought, Dave. While the example sentence may be grammatically incorrect, it still flows logically in my mind.

  6. We hatesss pronounsss!