ESL and the pronoun

I’m editing a novel by a foreign author. His English is quite good (as one would expect from someone with a doctorate in media and communications), but still — I can tell he’s an ESL writer. The kinds of errors I find are peculiar, in my experience, to ESL speakers and writers.

Take the lowly pronoun “his.” This particular ESL writer often uses “his” to mean “belonging to the main character, the man whose point of view controls the narrative.”

The problem is, quite often “his” grammatically refers to an entirely different character, and when I dig into the sentence, that “his” needs to become “Name’s” (the name of the main character) instead to make the meaning clear. Let me see if I can construct an example. (I don’t have permission to use this author’s writing in this manner, so I’m going to create something that’s similar. Bear with me. It’s difficult for me to make this kind of error on purpose, let alone by accident. No bragging, just facts.)

They sat at the table, John and Sam. Sam could see the wound on John’s arm. John’s tunic was bloody from the cut, even though it had been stitched neatly by his sister.

This ESL writer would contend that “his sister” means “Sam’s sister,” since Sam’s the one doing the seeing. That’s not how English works, though; grammatically, the referent for “his” in this instance is “John,” since he’s the one wearing the bloody tunic. (And granted, it takes a little work to get there, too. I purposely made this a little unclear, to show you the issues as I find them in ESL writers’ work.) Even if we’ve never been told that John has a sister at all, and we know that Sam does, that doesn’t mean “his sister” always means “Sam’s sister.” For the reader to know without a doubt whose sister did the stitching, the sentence needs to read “by Sam’s sister.”

We had a rather lengthy discussion about POV when I edited his first novel in this series. It was difficult to persuade him that yes, English really does have rules about pronouns, and no, “his” cannot always mean “belonging to the main character whose POV controls the story.” Just because “he” is the one through whose senses we’re experiencing the events does not mean that “his” will always refer to “him.” That “him,” that is. I mean the “him” who is the main character.

See the problem?

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