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?

On editing and self-editing

Edit Ruthlessly

Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

My husband and I are redoing our front yard to convert from high to low water use. Being situated in the alluvial zone at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, our little property is “blessed” with an abundance of rocks – in all sizes. Hence our brilliant idea: Do a rock garden.

So I’ve been spending a little time out there several days a week placing rocks to hold and frame the dirt for planting succulents. I place those rocks very carefully. The effect I’m looking for is not exactly a natural arrangement, but a visually interesting and attractive one. Sometimes I go out in the morning and rearrange some of the rocks I placed the day before – or the ones I placed several days ago. Sometimes I find myself sitting inside looking out the front window and thinking, no… that one would be better a little bit to the right, or, yes… but I’m going to need a bigger one right about there to balance that other little grouping…

Eventually it dawned on me: I’m editing the rocks.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. We have a string of little white lights and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. Every year it takes me a couple of hours to decorate the tree to something approaching visual perfection  – and then I spend the rest of the holiday season tweaking the lights and rearranging the ornaments to better balance the sizes and the colors, and to fill those annoying little “holes” that somehow weren’t apparent when I finished the original arrangement. Sometimes I’m sure I move ornaments to fill holes that were created by moving ornaments to fill other holes…

Yes, you got it. I edit the Christmas tree.

I think I’m a natural born editor.

Given that I’ve been writing things of one kind or another for most of my life, it’s hardly surprising that I edit my own writing. In fact, I do so constantly. Sometimes it feels like I can’t leave any two previously written words together. It also probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have become, here in my middle years, a professional editor – for scientific texts. I do scientific texts because I have a background in science that gives me added credibility for that task, but I could easily edit other things. The only thing remotely remarkable about my being an editor, really, is that it took me so long to come around to it.

After giving the matter some thought, I’ve concluded there are three basic requirements for being a good editor (of the text variety).

  1. An outstanding command of the language.
  2. The kind of patient and meticulous nature that makes giving “attention to detail” a foregone conclusion.
  3. A clear concept of what the final product ought to look like.

Obviously I wasn’t born with the first. I must have acquired it, although I do think a certain amount of talent must have been involved because it certainly required very little effort on my part. The second, I was apparently born with – in spades.  The third has always seemed pretty obvious to me and not particularly difficult to achieve. My method of achieving it can be summed up in three words:  Read good examples. (Of course, if your client has a manual or style sheet he or she wants you to use, it goes without saying that you use the manual or style sheet.)

It is a little bit surprising that it has taken me until fairly recently to really appreciate the need to have someone else edit my writing.  Well, maybe it’s not that surprising. When I started writing scientific papers, after all, I always edited myself – over and over – both before and after my thesis advisor had put in his two cents’ worth.  And when the proofs came back from the journal, I never noticed that any changes had been made to what I’d sent. There might have been some that I didn’t notice of course, but basically I think I wrote (and self-edited) well enough that my work didn’t need a whole lot of editing.

In other words, being that I’m a natural born editor, I think I might be forgiven for getting the impression that it was the writer’s job to get it right in the first place.

The trouble with this concept is, you can’t.

I mean, you can’t reliably get it completely right in the first place.  Not when you’re writing the tens of thousands of words – the dozens or hundreds of pages – that go into something the length of a book. The average essay or scientific paper is only a few pages or a few thousand words.  A writer who happens to be a pretty good editor has a fighting chance of catching all the errors in something that length, but not in a book.

Many people have noticed that we all tend to have trouble seeing our own mistakes on the page (or the screen.) You know what you wrote, after all. The fact that you didn’t actually write what you know you wrote can be really quite shocking when someone finally points it out to you. It can be positively mortifying – especially if you’re an editor, believe me.

Even when it comes to other people’s writing, there are certain kinds of errors that we have trouble seeing. The absence of small common words where a line is broken, for example, or the same word repeated at the end of one line and the beginning of the next.

Why are we error prone in this particular way?

Well, it obviously has something to do with expectations.  But I think it also has something to do with how our brains work. The brain is famous for filling in gaps in our perceptions to create the impression of a seamless and coherent world. Studies have shown that our visual systems only take samples of what’s out there. The fact that our eyes are constantly moving and taking samples, together with the vast amount of experience our brains have with interpreting those samples, combine to give us the impression that our minds simply look out through the windows of our eyes and see the world as it is.

Did you know that the design of the eye is such that the image cast by the lens on the retina is inverted, top to bottom, and left to right? As far as the eye is concerned, objects appear to fall up. Why doesn’t it look as if objects fall up?  Because, at a very early age, your brain learned to turn the images around.  It’s an amazing thing, the brain – quite miraculous. Right up to the point where that miracle prevents us from being able to see our own mistakes.

So, even though I’m an editor, I know that I still need an editor. When it comes time to get my manuscript ready for publication, I know I’m going to have to hire one. (And that’s not just me trying to promote my own profession.)