A Primer on Nouns and Pronouns

July 17, 2013

One of the most common issues I find in the books I edit deals with the use of nouns and pronouns. Most of us remember that nouns name a person, place, or thing. Pronouns refer to nouns. If you’re really into English, you probably know the noun that the pronoun refers to is called an antecedent.

Perhaps the problem between pronouns and antcedents began when we started making the English language politically correct. We stopped using the masculine pronoun as a default and, having nothing to replace it, we started using plural pronouns in place of singular.

If your eyes are glazing over, stay with me another minute, as I’m about to make my point, which is: A noun and its pronoun (antecedent) must agree in person and number. Examples: I must keep my cool. You must keep your money. John said he drove home that night. Ann likes her new apartment. The store won’t change its policy. The manager expects her staff to get along. The students demanded their grades.

The examples seem straight forward enough, but here are some examples I’ve seen in manuscripts I’ve edited. (1) A parent saw their child in trouble. (2) You have the person who learns from their experience. (3) An individual knows their own needs.

In each of the three examples above, the noun is singular and the pronoun is plural. Chicago Manual of Style, the book publishing standard, requires the noun and pronoun agree. A good writer will take on the challenge and rewrite the sentence to make that happen.

Here are a few more tips to improve your use of nouns and pronouns.

  • Use who and whoever when you can substitute he, she, they, I, or we. Examples: Who was promoted? Whoever wrote that?
  • Use whom and whomever when you can substitute him, her, them, me, or us as the object of the verb or the object of the preposition. Examples: Whom did you see today? I will speak to whomever answers the phone.
  • If two nouns are  joined by the conjunction and, the pronoun referring to them is plural. Example: John and Mary co-authored their book.
  • Watch collective nouns such as team or committee or staff or jury, as these are singular words that refer to one collection of people. Example: The committee took its break.
  • And, in general, avoid sexist language when possible. Examples: staffed instead of manned or firefighter instead of firemen.

Of course, how you use the language can depend on what you’re writing. For example, if your character uses sexist language, you need to write the character’s dialogue that way. If you’re writing a business book, you need to be mindful of sexism. But, in general, the tips I offer here should help you with the common use of nouns and pronouns.

Happy writing!

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Back to Basics

April 24, 2013

Most writers write without giving much thought to basics. I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I edit and in the assignments my college students turn in–knowledge of basic writing rules is lacking.

Here’s a refresher to check your own writing.

  • A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. It requires both a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun (person, place, or thing) and a verb shows what the subject is or does.
  • An incomplete sentence may contain a subject and a verb, but it is called a sentence fragment because it does not express a complete thought.
  • A run-on sentence is created when two or more complete thoughts are joined without punctuation. If you join the thoughts without a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a semi-colon. If you join them with a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a comma.
  • Words that modify a noun or pronoun must appear in close proximity to the noun or pronoun being modified.
  • Dangling modifiers confuse the reader. Example: Walking down the pathway, the agate caught his eye. This says the agate is doing walking. Corrected example: Walking down the pathway, he noticed the agate.
  • Misplaced modifiers obscure the modifier meaning from the reader. Example: She noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen while conducting a safety inspection after hours. You can make the meaning of what she is doing more clear by rewriting the sentence this way:  While conducting a safety inspection after hours, she noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen.
  • Pronoun/antecedent agreement has surfaced as a huge problem since we’ve become politically correct. Back in beginning of time (kidding), the masculine pronoun was standard. Today, to avoid offending anyone, the generic plural (they, them, their) gets used. The problem arises because a singular antecedent (that’s the noun the pronoun refers to) needs a singular pronoun. Example of what’s incorrect: The neighbor won’t keep their yard mowed.  Neighbor is singular. Their is plural. Those two disagree and that’s bad writing. The fix is easy. Make neighbor plural (neighbors) or change their to the. Look at your own writing and see if you can improve it with just a little more effort in the pronoun/antecedent agreement area.
  • Subject/verb agreement is another area that needs attention. Agreement refers to number. A singular subject needs a singular verb. A plural subject needs a plural verb. Be sure you don’t confuse the subject with its modifier, which can cause you to use the wrong verb. Example: The closet containing all the art supplies is locked. Closet is the subject and singular. Supplies is plural but is a modifier, so doesn’t impact the verb. Thus, use the singular verb is with the singular subject. NOTE: Collective nouns (these refer to a group acting as one unit such as family, committee, team, etc.) use a singular verb.

Hope this primer helps you get back to basics.

Happy writing!


Editing is a Critical Part of the Writing Process

October 3, 2012

I attended two meetings and one seminar last week and one issue surfaced in each venue–today’s writing needs more editing. When pressed for more details, each person talked about the explosion of independent publishing created by technology and the deterioration of the quality of the end result. Most of the complaints centered around e-books, but independently published (aka self-published) print books were just as bad.

Here are some of the points raised in the discussions during last week’s meetings:

  • Simple punctuation errors such as where to place commas or periods with quotation marks (both go inside the quotation mark, by the way).
  • Simple punctuation errors such as whether or not to place a comma before the conjunction in a series (per the book industry standard, Chicago Manual of Style, a comma goes before the conjunction in a series).
  • Pronoun/antecedent disagreement (plural pronouns such as they or their with singular antecedents such as speaker). Example: When a speaker tells their audience a story, they should use more gestures. Edited version: Most speakers should use more gestures when telling stories to their audiences.
  • Overuse of trite expressions.
  • Overuse of favorite words or phrases.
  • Overuse of scare quotes. Scare quotes are the quotation marks put around words. These should be used judiciously and only when “scaring” a reader into seeing a word is used in unusual manner. Too many scare quotes become distracting.
  • Capitalization of job titles without a person’s name. Example: I couldn’t reach the Principal, so I called the Superintendent.
  • Using ellipsis to show a break or pause. The correct punctuation for that is a dash. Ellipsis shows omission, not pause. The one exception is that ellipsis is correctly used  in dialogue to show faltering speech.
  • Sometimes words are missing.

The take-away from the discussions is the writer’s credibility is compromised, if not dismissed, when he or she shows little regard for details before publishing.

One caution, however. Avoid asking people who love you (and everything you write) to help you with your editing. They simply won’t tell you where your writing lacks clarity or needs work, either because they don’t see it  themselves or they don’t want to risk hurting you.

Do yourself and your reader a favor and invest in hiring an editor before you independently publish your work. The perception of your credibility depends on it.

Does all of this mean your “baby” won’t have a birthmark? No. Writers are human. Editors are human. Humans make mistakes. It happens, even in the big publishing houses. All I’m suggesting is it’s worth doing a little extra editing for both you and your reader.

Happy writing!