by John Peragine
Some of the smallest words in English (and other languages) are pronouns, but they have a profound impact on meaning and emotions. Using them well in our writing is a powerful shortcut to help our readers.
Pronouns can be proclamations of our psyches to the world, about how we feel about ourselves and others around us. Pronouns can bring us comfort and they can bring us pain. Pronouns can drive us to rage or drop us into tears.
Pronouns are declarations separating us from them. They can bring us together. And they can accuse them.
Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:
Look at what they are doing to my city.
More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?
Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.
Look at what we are doing to our city.
Pronouns are debated in Washington. Laws are made surrounding them. The usage of the right pronoun can make us feel included. Conversely, the misuse or misattribution of a pronoun can be used as a weapon.
It is for these reasons that the proper use and care of pronouns should be given in our writing. All our writing: articles, books, emails, and social media. As writers, we have a responsibility to use pronouns with the highest level of ethics and personal moral standards.
Here is a quick list of all the various pronouns.
My recent work in progress was originally written in third person point of view. I worked on it for three years, pitched to agents and publishers, and I was schooled about my genre. My book was not an adult fantasy, as I originally believed, it was a middle-grade adventure.
I was crushed, not because I mis-genred it (yes, I am owning genred now), but because I now had the job of editing the whole book, analyzing every pronoun in every scene, and changing it to first person. When my main character spoke, I had to switch from "he said" to "I said," which opened up a totally new point of view and reflection on the scene.
In this total re-write, pronouns were my touchpoints. I gained a new respect for pronouns and their use in writing.
Using the right pronoun, and connecting it to the object it replaces, is important. Below, I've provided some common errors people make when using pronouns.
People often choose the object form of a pronoun, rather than the subject form. Here is an example:
Over the course of the month, my friends and me went to the fishing hole every day.
This should read:
Over the course of the month, my friends and I went to the fishing hole every day.
The word “me” is the object form of the pronoun. The subject forms of pronouns are I, he, she, we, and they. These are subjects of the verb.
Pronouns can be the object of the preposition. Here is another example:
The ice cream was served at the end of the night, and party favors were given to she and the other girls.
It should read:
The ice cream was served at the end of the night, and party favors were given to her and the other girls.
In this case, "her" is the object of the preposition "to." If the prepositional phrase is shortened it would read "to them," again using the object form of the pronoun.
Consider the sentence:
The bride announces she and her new husband’s plans for their honeymoon include a trip to the Bahamas.
Pronouns have possessive forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, and their. These are pronouns that are used when an object is possessed. The sentence should read:
The bride announces her and her new husband’s plans for their honeymoon include a trip to the Bahamas.
Kelly signed she and her friend out of detention using her teacher’s signature.
In this sentence is the transitive verb signed. In this case the object form of the pronoun should be used.
Kelly signed her and her friend out of detention using her teacher’s signature.
Reflexive pronouns are those that end in -self or -selves. Examples are himself, herself, and ourselves. Consider this sentence:
Both my daughter and myself were daring enough to ride the double-loop rollercoaster.
The sentence should use a personal pronoun instead.
Both my daughter and I were daring enough to ride the double-loop rollercoaster.
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Here is a challenge for you: how many times did I misuse pronouns in this article? What do you believe is the most powerful pronoun in the English language?
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, will be released this Fall. https://www.facebook.com/twilightdjinn/
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John, your rewrite of the Bahamas honeymoon sentence may be technically correct, but it is still awkward. I'd like to have seen "The bride announces that her and her new husband's plans for their honeymoon include a trip to the Bahamas." Inserting "that" after "announces" indicates right away that "her" is not the object of "announces."
I knew grammarians would like this post! I also use how it sounds in my head approach for sentence structure!
I'm ok with pronouns, although I couldn't tack the labels on them anymore. My rule for writing -- and not just pronouns: when in doubt do a writearound. This would make a good reference for 'when in doubt' moments. As for Anna's comment above, I'd have written "The bride announces she and her husband will go to the Bahamas on their honeymoon."
Do you ever find times you can’t write around them?
Most of the time, I know what I'm writing, so I'd have to say, no. At least not any time I can remember. I guess Miss Cook and Mr. Holtby drilled the rules deep into my writing subconscious. I do hire an editor to catch anything I missed. I have plenty of other areas where I mess things up, but not usually pronouns.
I believe "Kelly signed her and her friend out of detention using her teacher's signature" should read "Kelly signed her friend and herself out of detention using her teacher's signature."
It definitely sounds better right?
Yes, it does sound better. A reflexive pronoun is the only thing that works here.
I'd love to get more information on your new middle grade book -- do you have a non-Facebook page for it or a website maybe?
great question- it is in the process of being built. It will be at http://www.johnperaginebooks.com (if you want a sneak peek of it you can go to https://johnperaginebooks.com/books/) It will launch in the Fall. HOWEVER- I am looking for some early readers!
I'd love to help out as an early reader. What do I need to do?
(Oh, and if you don't mind my saying so, it should be, "sneak peek." :D)
That is why I love editors!!! Send me an email at John@johnpwriter.com
Always happy to help in any capacity. :>
I'm sending you an email right now from my gmail address. Looking forward to reading your work!
Can you write a post about how how a person's choice of personal pronouns affects writers?
Yes! I'll second that request.
Amber- tell me a little more of what you mean about affecting the writer? I think I know but I want to be sure!
John, many of us trip up on pronouns. I'm glad you decided to write about them.
I tend to read my work aloud and listen for errors. I catch many this way. I also need an editor, but try to find as many as errors as possible. A good critique group is invaluable.
I look forward to reading part two!
I look forward to writing it!
Don't forget pronoun order. When using me, my, and I, they should go last in a list.
Hahahaha I am also in the process of changing a book from third person PoV to first person! Thank you, I will be storing this article where I can reference it easily.
Yes! Thank you for this concise lesson. It drives me nutty when people use I when it should be me. A huge bugger for me! I struggle with proper use of the reflexive pronouns. Sometimes, they just don’t feel right. I usually rewrite at that point.