Clear Pronoun Reference

A Backwards Approach

The true key to any communication is awareness of what interferes with the message.

Communication depends on clarity.

Approaching any message, word-based or graphic image, from the stance of “What can go wrong?” seems backwards.  However, any longtime writer will confess that is the question constantly in mind as they prepare to write.

From Business to Athletics to the Arts

“Begin with the End in Mind” is the mantra of any endeavor:  business, sports, arts, religion :: the customer,
the win, the performance, Heaven . . . or Hell.

Once the idea is in place, all impediments are then removed.  As the idea progresses to reality, impediments are continually removed until the idea becomes tangible reality.

If businesses don’t start by creating smooth pathways for customers, then customers will leave.  So they should begin by identifying the blocks that will impede or frustrate their customers.

Few inventions begin with someone saying, “Great idea.”  Most inventors want to devise a better method.

Athletes create regimens by removing what interferes.

Artists don’t start painting their visions on blank canvasses.  They prep their canvas to remove any imperfections.  Then they begin.

Writing begins with idea.  Removal of impediments begins next by determining characters and GMC, plot situation and structure, and setting.  We refine as we process, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.

The End is Not the End

When we all come to the end of our goal, we haven’t reached the end of our task.  We’re still putting on final touches.  And we’re thinking of the next goal that we want to communicate to our audience—even if that audience is just ourselves.

And we constantly look—beginning, middle, end—for impediments to our message.  We want those impediments gone!

Especially when those impediments are glaringly obvious.

Avoid glaring errors with Clear Pronoun Reference
Mistakes so Bright We’ve Got to Wear Shades

Grammar Mistakes so Bright

Throughout this series of blogs since January, we’ve talked about grammar checkers and readability stats, mis-used words (“Vial Trolls”) and sentence subjects being lost (“Pesky Trolls”).  We’ve covered fossilized verbs and MisMods & DangMods (Sept. 15 and Oct. 15).

We’ve offered ways to create emphasis (June 15 and Aug. 1) and ways to add interest (July 1 and 15).

We’ve had side excursion to baseball (May 1) and book trailers (Sept. 1 and Oct. 1).

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed these trips.

Clear Pronoun Reference, part 3 of 3

Pronouns cause problems when our audience cannot quickly determine the nouns they refer to.

  1. Oscar waved to his coach as he came down the escalator. >> Who is on the escalator?
  2. Oscar met up with Mike after he saw Julio yesterday and said that he had the gear. >> Who has the gear? We have 3 choices.  Who exactly saw Julio yesterday?  2 choices.
  3. Before the gate could fit the opening in the fence, it has to be made smaller. >> What needs to be smaller: gate or fence opening?

Awareness of the problem helps us avoid it, just as we noted above:  Begin with the End in Mind.  If you know you make certain errors, you will learn to spot those errors more quickly.


When proofreading, touch every pronoun back to the noun immediately preceding it.  If too many nouns have inserted themselves between your pronoun and its antecedent, divide the sentence to conquer the problem. (btw: ¶ = paragraph)

  • Oscar met up with Mike. ¶ “I saw Julio,” Mike said. “He said he’s got our gear.  We just need to pack it up.”  ¶ “When can we do that?” ¶ “Well, yesterday.” (grin)

As a rule of thumb, nouns should be in the same ¶ with the pronoun.  Repeat the noun when entering a new ¶.

FICTION follows a slightly different rule:  In training through a situation, several ¶s will occur.  Restate the noun occasionally and in different positions within the different types of  ¶s.

¶ types vary greatly:  some narration, some dialogue, some exposition, some action.

Read aloud for flow and continuity and pronoun reference.

Take Off the Shades

This is our last Grammar Blog for the year.  We’re launching into a New Advent in November, coinciding with the NaNoWriMo.  Check back November 1st for our “royal we” take on the internationally infamous writing challenge: 50,000 words in one month.

  • Where to start?
  • What to do?
  • When to resort to tools?
  • Why to abandon those tools?
  • How to succeed?

Happy Writing.

~~ Emily


Modifiers:  Misplaced and Dangling

Mistakes need Shades
The Glaring Sun of Van Gogh’s “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun”, 1889 . . . definitely not a mistake

Communicating ideas is difficult enough without confusing the audience. Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers cause confusion.


Exactly as its name suggests, the MisMod is just out of place.  A simple fix:  move it.

John found a green boy’s sweater.

What’s green?  The boy?  No, we haven’t found a troll.  The sweater?  Yes!

  • simple > the adjective swap > “boy’s green sweater”
  • simple > the prepositional phrase swap > “I mopped the garage with my brother.” No, I didn’t dip his head in the bucket, turn him upside down, and mop the floor.  “My brother and I. . . .”
  • not so simple > the adverb swap. Be careful with adverbs.  While they can move around in the sentence, they can change meaning.

“Only John and Alice went to the cemetery at night.” :: the only ones to go

“John and Alice only went . . . .” :: the only place to go

“J and A went only . . . .” :: sounds like the previous one, but this position suggests that other options were available.

“J & A . . . the only cemetery at night.” :: This town has only one cemetery.  BTW, this use of only is an adjective, not an adverb.

“J & A . . . at night only.” :: because they like to hang out with ghouls.


The DangMod is more than out of place.  We have to add / subtract / divide / multiply?

A not-so-simple fix, the DangMod may hide from us.  We know what we intend to say.  As we write, as we edit, as we run through the final proof, we may never see the DangMod.

Only rarely have I noticed a writing software’s grammar/spelling checker spotting the DangMod for your judgment to correct or not.

First Readers may not spot it, either.  However, some readers of published writing will spot it and inform us.  Dang it.  Be nice.  Thank them.  Point out the DangMod is dang hard to spot, and correct it in your document.  Keep a chart of errors.  When you’ve corrected enough to have the original document substantially better, upload the new version.

What do DangMods look like?

Several moose were seen while traveling by car through New Brunswick, Canada.

DangMods are hard to spot.
A Moose that escaped the car driving through Canada

How does this dangle?  1] Who saw the moose?  2] Who was traveling?

While traveling by car through NB, CAN, several moose were seen.  This sentence is still NOT correct.

The moose are not seeing themselves.  They still are not driving.  Their antlers aren’t sticking out the car windows.

This extreme example helps point out the very problem with DangMods:  the act-er (subject) of the verbs to see and to travel is missing.

While we were traveling . . .  we saw several moose.

After loading the dishwasher, the video gaming continued.  >> Who loaded it?  Who was gaming?

Upsetting the neighbors, the fireworks were set off early. >> Who upset the neighbors?  Who set off the pyrotechnic display?

Careful reading of exactly what we have written will help us avoid the MisMods and those DangMods.

The Crux of the Argument

Proofreading our work is never fun.  After we’re past the thrill of character and situation, after we’ve paced the plot and twisted the scenes to avoid the humdrum, after we’ve tracked symbolic images and tweaked the archetypes, yet another read of the manuscript offers no excitement.  Checking sentences and word use and punctuation is an especially oh-hum yawn-worthy task.

Yet we want to present the best possible product to our audience.  We paint our portraits with words.  Our words should carry the energy that our story needs.  That last proofread is crucial.

How do we do it?
  • Most people advise checking for spelling by reading backwards, word by word.
  • Since we’ve been concerned primarily with sentences, I advise reading backwards, sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. We get the context and can still spot punctuation and spelling.

Awareness alone is often enough to solve the problem. As we become aware of our stumbling blocks, we learn to check for them.

Avoid the dangs.  Proofread.  Troll for the grammar trolls.

~~ Emily