Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #3

From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)

The eighth of a ten-part series.

#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, and Contusion

When you write something, you know your intent, what it is you mean to say. Your readers, however, may not. This can be particularly true when using pronouns, those shorthand words we use in place of nouns and names: I, me, he, she, him, her, it, and so on.

When your story or narrative includes multiple characters, especially of the same sex, your reader can get befuddled over a barrage of he said, he said, they said.

vaguepronouns

Profusion leads to confusion.

Too many pronouns can confuse (and maybe even amuse) your readers.

For example:

  • Profusion: Mark put his hands on the mare’s neck. The sadness he saw in her eyes tore at his heart and he wanted to do something to alleviate the hurt. “Will I see you again?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” she said and raced across the high desert toward the ranch house.

Confusion: To whom do her and she refer? Is Mark in love with a horse? Does the horse speak to Mark? (After all, if Mr. Ed could talk . . .)

Recast: Mark put his hands on the mare’s neck. The sadness he saw in Jane’s eyes tore at his heart, and he wanted to do something to alleviate the hurt. “Will I see you again?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” she said and raced across the high desert toward the ranch house.

(Clarification: The reader knows Jane is not the mare.)

  • Profusion: Kids at school said the lake was haunted because they covered over a cemetery when filling up the lake.

Confusion: Who are they? In this context, they refers to the subject of the sentence: Kids.

Did the kids create the lake and cover over the cemetery? No, they hadn’t even been born yet. They most likely refers to a community or government agency, but there is no reference to that agency preceding this sentence.

Recast: Kids at school said the lake was haunted because the Tennessee Valley Authority covered over a cemetery when filling up the lake.

  • Profusion: He stepped back and swung the machete again, burying the blade in the back of the man’s thick, meaty neck, but he remained upright, his eyes blinking rapidly and his mouth opening and closing like a landed fish sucking air.

Confusion: Who remained upright? The man who swung the machete or the man with the thick, meaty neck?

Recast: He stepped back and swung the machete again, burying the blade in the back of the man’s thick, meaty neck, but the man remained upright, his eyes blinking rapidly and his mouth opening and closing like a landed fish sucking air.

Pronoun Contusion: Me and Him, Her and Me

grammar-cars-i-vs-meI will spare you the use of the terms “subjective” and “objective” put forth by grammarians . . . See? You’re already nodding off.

Here’s the deal—some folks (country songwriters chief among them) write and say such things as: Me and him went fishing, or: Him and I went to the game, or: Her and me went shopping.

What’s wrong with these examples? They are considered nonstandard, subliterate, or colloquial English grammar.

Would you say: Me went to the store, or: Him went fishing, or: Her went shopping? I doubt it.

You are more likely to say: I went to the store; or: He went fishing; or: She went shopping. Adding another person to the mix does not change it: He and I went fishing, or: He and I went to the store, or: She and I went shopping.

Him and me or her and me are appropriate when the pronouns are not the subject of the sentence, but rather the object of the action (OK, me snuck in a couple of technical terms—send I a snarky email):

The professor gave him and me failing grades.

Individually it would read: The professor gave him a failing grade, or: The professor gave me a failing grade.

When writing a narrative, I recommend sticking with standard EnglishUNLESS you choose to write in dialect; examples: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. But writing a narrative in dialect should be a conscious, well-thought decision.

And, as I’ve said in previous blogs in this series, dialogue is excepted. Speech patterns are part of character development, and using nonstandard English gives the readers clues as to the degree of education and propriety of a character.

Pronouns, Schmonouns

But, you say, pronouns confuse me; they don’t make sense; the rules are arbitrary. Sorry, but that’s how the language evolved. It boils down to a matter of perception, and how you want to be perceived by your peers and your readers—and your reviewers.

If you’re going to break the rules, know the rules you’re breaking.
Do it with intent, not out of ignorance.

References & Resources:

For an explanation of me vs. myself, or you and I vs. you and me, here are some quick references for pronoun usage:

Rewind:

Introduction
#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash—The Separator

Still to come:

#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves

 

 

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About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.wigeonpublishing.com
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5 Responses to Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #3

  1. Pingback: From the Editor’s Eye: The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers | Polishing Your Prose

  2. Reblogged this on San Diego Writers/Editors Guild and commented:
    #3 in Larry Edwards’ common errors list: Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, and Contusion.

  3. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #2 | Polishing Your Prose

  4. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #1 | Polishing Your Prose

  5. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #0 | Polishing Your Prose

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