Clarity and the ambiguous pronoun

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration fr...
Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration from Alice in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read people’s fiction manuscripts I’m often surprised at how frequently I encounter things that just aren’t clear. (I probably shouldn’t be. As a writer you always know what you meant to say, and it can be hard to tell in the heat of the moment that you haven’t said it.) This is a much rarer flaw in published works of fiction – although I have had the same experience recently with published books or ebooks. It never used to happen, or almost never.  I suspect the proliferation of self-published books and books from small indy publishers is at least partly to blame. The author may or may not have hired an editor, or may have used an inexperienced one. A small publisher may run the ms past one editor, whereas I’m told the major houses used to run them past several. More eyes are better. It’s that simple.

When I say things aren’t clear, I’m not talking about places where the writer was obviously trying to imply things, rather than explicitly state them, or deliberately trying to be ambiguous. I’m talking about ambiguity that’s obviously not intended.

One of the most frequent causes of unintended lack of clarity comes from ambiguous pronoun reference, something like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved.  “Where are you going?” he called.

Who smiled and waved? Was it Jim or Bob? Is Jim asking where Bob is going on the bus, or is Bob asking where Jim is going on his bicycle?

Other things being equal, pronouns tend to attach themselves to the nearest preceding noun. “His” therefore refers to Jim. There’s really no other possibility. Both instances of “he” are most likely to refer to Bob, making Bob the one smiling and waving and also the one calling. If you as the writer meant otherwise, you had better say so, like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now the remaining “he” feels like it refers to Jim because Jim is closer, so Jim is doing the calling as well as the smiling and waving. Again, if you didn’t mean that, you had better say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” Bob called.

But remember, I said “other things being equal.” Consider this rewriting of the original sentence:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now Jim and Bob no longer have equal weight because “Jim” is being used grammatically as a subject whereas “Bob” is being used as an object. I’m not certain, but I feel as if all three instances of “he” more likely refer to Jim. Jim was the subject of the first sentence, so I tend to assume it’s Jim whose actions are being described as the narrative proceeds. If I intend otherwise, I must say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. Bob smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

And again, I’ve now got Bob doing the calling because his is the closest name and it was used as a subject.  If I meant to switch back to Jim, I should have written, “where are you going?” Jim called.

All right, now consider this variant:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His face broke into a smile and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now, I tend to feel as if the “his” in “his face” could quite possibly refer to Bob. I think this is because “Bob” was used as an object and “his” is an object pronoun. It could still be Jim, but the connection is weakened and the sentence has really become ambiguous. Also, the last “he” now feels like it ought to have the same referent as the one in “he waved.” So again, I have to check to be sure that’s what I intended.

What’s the upshot here?

When you are describing action involving multiple characters of the same gender, the pronoun is not your friend. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all pronouns. You obviously need them sometimes. Repeating names over and over can sound repetitious and clunky. It just means that you have to regard all pronouns as suspect, potentially ambiguous until their possible referents have been checked and cleared. And if there’s any chance of confusion, out they go.

It’s a good idea to have alternative identifiers for your characters to help you avoid repeating the same name over and over. Alternative identifiers are things like: “the boy,” “the old man,” “the dark-haired girl,” “the fat woman,” “the farmer,” “the merchant,” “the Italian” – or even things like “his friend,” “the other man,” or “the speaker.”

I know you’re thoroughly tired of this sentence by now, but just to illustrate:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His friend’s face broke into a smile, and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like to use dialog tags, who want to just write, “where are you going?” Well, here’s one alternative fix for that approach:

              “Where are you going, Jim?”

It’s remarkable how easy it is to end up with ambiguous pronouns. I know I find them all the time when reviewing my own writing. How about you? Have you noticed this problem in your own writing or in other people’s? Do you have your own tricks for dealing with it?

5 Comments

  • Carrie Rubin

    August 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm Reply

    Another great post. I try to use alternative identifiers if I can, to avoid using the name over and over again. As you point out, that can become tedious.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      August 30, 2013 at 3:02 pm Reply

      As far as I can tell, you’re doing fine. I didn’t notice any of this kind of problem in The Seneca Scourge.

  • jmmcdowell

    August 7, 2013 at 6:59 pm Reply

    These are ambiguities I try to avoid. And they’re one of the many good reasons why we need several pairs of good eyes to go over our manuscripts. Even the best editors will gloss over any number of their own mistakes. That’s just the way our eyes and minds work when we focus on something so intently for long periods of time.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      August 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm Reply

      I don’t remember that I’ve ever noticed this kind of problem in your Megan Bode tales. So I guess it shows that you’re being careful about it. Half the battle is just to be aware, but editing helps. Things tend to get by us because we “know” what we wrote.

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