Perterbing Pronouns

by Alyson Folse
(Baton Rouge, La, United States of America)

I'm a wanna-be editor, who has been struggling to find an answer to this question: how do pronouns work in scenes with two people of the same gender? I always thought that the pronoun referred to the person of the matching gender who was last named. So when you have John and Mike, and the scene tells us that, "John went to the door and let him in," am I actually saying that, "John went to the door and let John in," even if context clues tell us that 'him' should be 'Mike'?

Or maybe the two gentlemen are speaking to each other. Would the line, "you're strange," Mike told him, be acceptable? It seems to me like it should work - I understand who is speaking and who is being spoken to - but it breaks the rule of 'last matching gender'.

Comments for Perterbing Pronouns

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Mar 08, 2017
Same gender pronouns
by: Audrey

Welcome to the conundrums of editors everywhere.

Pronouns leave many opportunities to misunderstand. The editor's job is to help the writer to be as clear as possible.

I'll deal with your last case first.

"You're strange," Mark told him,

would be much better as

"You're strange," said Mark.

This assumes the situation makes clear who is on site and which person Mark is talking to. If the intended receiver of the message is not clear, try,

"You're strange," Mark said to John.

Your first example allows many options for fixing the problem. I don't think anyone would assume that John let himself in. That said, there may be better ways to write the scene.

John opened the door and pulled Mike in.

John opened the door and hissed, "Come in."

John opened the door, and Mike burst in.

Notice that in each case, the reader actually has much more information, and the problem of the pronoun disappears.

As an aside, I would frankly wonder why a writer would give such banal information with so many words, and I would suggest Including only vital information. Writers often use far too many words (or sentences or paragraphs, or chapters).

I tell my own clients that pronouns should have clear antecedents. And in many cases, I suggest clients remove the pronouns altogether and be more specific in the ways I've shown above.

I understand that I haven't given you a black and white answer to your good question. That's because I don't correct English lessons. I edit for robust, clear writing. Often, that means removing pronouns.

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