Referencing Referents

Or: How to Point Your Pronoun to the Right Word

I’ve been quiet (too quiet) in the last month because I’ve been working.

Shaddup, you. I do too work. A lot. And my work involves correcting grammar, among many other things. A big part of correcting grammar concerns pronouns and referents.

I see you out there, frowning a little, scratching the tip of your nose, rubbing your temple. Your elementary school English (or did they call it language arts?) teacher used to drone on about pronouns and referents, and you learned it just long enough to get past the pop quiz and the unit test, and then POOF gone.

That was me in every math class I ever took. But we’re not talking about me, or about math. We’re talking about pronouns and referents.

I’ll wager you do know what a pronoun is, though, even now. is one. You is another. So are he, she, they, them, it, his, her, we, us, our, and the ones I’m not going to list because that’s not why I came here today. The ones I just typed should be plenty to jog that sad memory into action. (I blogged some time ago about a few of the ones I’m not discussing today. In fact, I did it twice. And I’m apparently really bad at thinking up unique titles. But that’s not why I’m here today, either.)

So. Referents. They provide reference for pronouns.

When you’re writing, you can’t just drop a pronoun in willy-nilly and expect people to know who or what you’re talking about. (I can use “you” here, because I know there’s at least one reader out there; that’s you.) Let’s lo0k at an example. Remember, it’s very difficult for me to come up with examples of poor grammar. Seriously. I have a really hard time writing wrong. (I’m very good, though, at righting wrong.)

Too aware of the driver, Maggie was unable to touch him the way she wanted to.

“But there’s no context, Karen!” That’s precisely the point. We need to be able to get a clear meaning from this sentence without knowing what surrounds it. Let’s look at the pronouns. There’s “him” and there’s “she.” Well, “she” clearly refers to Maggie. That makes “Maggie” the referent for “she.”

But who does “him” refer to? In this sentence, as written, it can only refer to “the driver.”

Does it make sense to you that she’d want to touch that person in some way? Or does it seem that there’s probably another person, a man, in the picture somewhere–but not in this sentence? Even with the context, this sentence is still in trouble. Maggie’s on a date, and she and her boyfriend are in the back of a cab. She wants to climb all over her date. NOT the cabbie. But as it’s written, this sentence can only mean that it IS the cabbie who’s the object of her affection. The only referent for “him” is “the driver.” This is true even if the sentence appears in context, with Maggie and her date in the back seat and the driver up front. The only referent for “him” is “driver.” Words in surrounding sentences don’t count here.

So how do I fix something like this? How can YOU fix it before it comes to me? By changing one word, which removes the problem and adds clarity to the sentence. Change “him” to the boyfriend’s name. We’ll say it’s Chad.

Too aware of the driver, Maggie was unable to touch Chad the way she wanted to.

Now there are two men, the driver and Chad, and Maggie’s lusting after the one that makes sense in context AND grammatically. This is the pronoun issue I run into most often: a pronoun that references the wrong word. It points to the wrong referent.

Note that earlier I said “words in surrounding sentences don’t count here.” And it’s true. In a construction like this example, the referent has to be clear, or the pronoun has to go. That’s why the best path to correct grammar (without rewriting the entire sentence) is simply to change “him” to “Chad.”

In a sentence like “They were all sitting in the tiny cubicle, waiting for the phone to ring,” the pronoun “they” is absolutely correct. We don’t know precisely who “they” are without the context, but grammatically, this is solid. We don’t have to know who they are to understand what’s happening here. There’s no confusion. The pronoun “they” lets us write about a group without using the same noun phrase over and over and over, avoiding hideousness like this:

The office staff gathered at 9 o’clock for the scheduled conference call. The office staff were all sitting in the tiny cubicle, waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, the office staff looked at each other and realized no one had decided which of the office staff would answer the phone.

You think I’m exaggerating.

You’re wrong. (Except it’s usually proper names, not common nouns, that are repeated ad nauseam.)

Here, the referent is “staff” (or “office staff,” if you prefer the more complete version). Once we’ve established it in the first sentence, we can use “they” or “them” afterward to avoid repetition.

The office staff gathered at 9 o’clock for the scheduled conference call. They were all sitting in the tiny cubicle, waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, they looked at each other and realized no one had decided which of them would answer the phone.

Doesn’t have to be “office staff,” either. Could just as well be “aliens” or “howler monkeys” or “mutated paramecia.” “They” is correct in every case, in this example as written.

Let’s look at one more example of a poor referent.

Maggie glared at Joan and grabbed her purse.

Grabbed whose purse? Her own, or Joan’s? This takes more than changing one word to clarify, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective, I suppose). Maybe we just need to switch positions of the verb phrases. (And yes, in this case “her” is a possessive pronoun. That doesn’t change the rules about referents one bit.)

Maggie grabbed her purse and glared at Joan.

Now it’s clear whose purse that is. Still, this might not be what the author intended. Perhaps Maggie grabbed Joan’s purse. Then we could write:

Maggie grabbed Joan’s purse and glared at her.

The referent issue is still corrected here: it’s Joan’s purse, and Joan’s being glared at. The key, then, seems to be the order of the verb phrases. (At least this time, it is.)

So, there you have it–“it” being “the skinny about pronouns and referents.” As always, holler if you have questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

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