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

Glaring Errors that Blind the Reader : Irregular Verbs

Previous blogs have discussed “vial trolls” who aren’t captured by the machine grammar/spell-checkers.  Other errors can also escape the machine.  Some of them even escape us.  Here are three identified glaring errors:

1st: Irregular Verbs

2nd: Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers (coming up next)

3rd: Clear Pronoun Reference (coming up after)

Irregular Verbs are fossils.
An Ammonite is interesting.

Let’s play.

Irregular Verbs

Some fossils are interesting.

Some fossils are scary.

Irregular verbs are fossils from Old English, when the language itself was a dialect of German, waiting eagerly to be intermixed with Norse and French.

We often spot other people’s problems with the common irregular verbs.

TAKE >> I take, I took, I have taken:  Not “have tooken”, sweetheart; taken.

BUY >> I buy, I bought, I have bought.  Now I’m broke.

SLEEP >> I sleep, I slept, I have slept.  I am going to sleep again!

SWIM >> I swim, I swam, I have swum in the past and want to do so again on this hot day!  Whew! But not with that scary fossil.

We know the balloon burst (not bursted—or busted)!

We’ve got that the shoes stink and stank and have stunk up the entire house.

Some fossils have altered over time.  LEAP once had “leapt” but now is “leaped”.  SLEEP, however, is not becoming “sleeped”.

Irregular Verbs are fossils.
Swim, Swim faster! Scary fossil.
Even with all our knowledge, irregular verbs can trip us up.

Why, oh why, oh why?

It’s the not-so-common irregular verbs that slink into our writing and fling our readers across the room when we use them improperly.

SLAY (Watch out, writers of historical novels and fantasy) >> I slay the trolls.  I slew the trolls.  I have slain the trolls and will do so again.

BID (Here is the perfect verb to use when using dialog to create a sense of history.) >> “I bid you goodbye.”  “Look, Agatha, he bade her goodbye.”  He has bidden her goodbye and left hours ago.  Catch him before he turns into a fossil.

STRIVE >> We strive.  We strove.  We have striven.  (I encounter the error “strived” constantly in books by one author and keep intending to write an email.  Maybe it’s better if I don’t.)

WEAVE >> She weaves when driving while drunk.  That driver wove over the center line.  Because she has woven off the road, we dialed 911.

Language Fossils

English has a lot of fossilized words, some of them no longer in use except in crossword puzzles and idiomatic expressions.  “Eke” and “wend”, the “kith” of “kith and kin”, and other words are ones that we often give “short shrift” ;).  Check them out.  Type “fossils of English language” into a search engine and up they pop (along with images of scary fossils).

Language fossils can be the very thing to give a historical or interesting touch for your setting or one of your characters.  {BUT avoid the Yoda gimmick, discussed in the last blog, “Switch It Up”.}

Tribute to Mother
My Walking Dictionary

It’s up to you to determine if language fossils are interesting or scary, help or hindrance.

As it is, if you notice—or someone kindly tells you—that you have problems with certain words, it will never hurt to check a dictionary, whether a walking dictionary or an “official” one in print.

My walking dictionary never failed to tell me when my use of “prove” and “proved” was invariably wrong.  I miss my walking dictionary.

Dictionaries are your friend.

And online dictionaries are really fast!

So, here’s my tribute to my walking dictionary.

~~ Emily

inversion in popular culture
Instantly recognizable, but something of a gimmick.

Yoda charm :: Inversion.

The first instantly recognizable side character from the original Star Wars trilogy was Yoda.

Why did everyone immediately fasten upon him?  Two reasons:  his Zen-like pronouncements and his inverted statements.

Classic Yoda: “This one a long time have I watched” & “Always in motion is the future.”

After his charming introduction to the world, however, came all of the take-offs:  his inversions created easy mimicry.  While some of his pronouncements sounded like truth, many became little more than gimmick.

The prior Writers’ Ink blog looked at methods of repetition.  Inversion can be just as clever as anaphora or polysyndeton.

The WHAT & HOW & WHY of Inversion

Inversion = to change the normal order of words.  The fancy Greek term for it is “anastrophe”.

Sample these:

“Yet I know how the heather looks” vs. “Yet know I how the heather looks.”

The second version is Emily Dickinson’s third line in “I Never Saw a Moor”.

As with any structural device, like polysyndeton, anastrophe (inversion) requires the reader to consider the reason for the alteration from the norm.

Dickinson presents us with simple ideas about using the mind’s eye to travel, but with the inversion we now realize she is talking about the power of imagination in comprehending life and the afterlife.  She continues: “I never spoke with God / nor visited in Heav’n / yet certain am I of the spot / as if the checks were given.”

Sample these:

“It doesn’t matter how the gate is narrow or how the scroll is filled with punishments.”


“It matters not how strait the gate, / how charged with punishments the scroll.”

Some of us recognize the opening of the last stanza of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”.

More inversion.  And choosing strait for narrow and charged for filled with, the classic flipping to synonyms.

Shifting ideas & words around will change our view of life and the afterlife, for as Henley reminds us, we are “the captain of [our] soul”.  We are also the captain of our writing.


Inversion in photography
Mirror Image Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Of the Greek rhetorical devices, my personal fave is the chiasmus, in which words are repeated in reverse order.  That mirror effect leads to truth.

Shakespeare is our master.  From the witches in Macbeth:

“Fair is foul, foul is fair.”

Ah, how the three witches tempted Macbeth to change his perception:  that which he had formally accepted as good become evil to him, and that which was evil (murder) became good.

Chi is the Greek letter that looks like X.  The chiasmus is set up on that X pattern when you pair up the lines one above the other.

Try these:

> ˜“Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale (sometimes accredited to Margaret Thatcher)

˜> Never let a fool kiss you or kiss a fool. ~ modern proverb

˜> “Do I love you because you are beautiful?  Or are you beautiful because I love you? ~ Oscar Hammerstein, Cinderella (preferred over the Disney version)

> ˜And this wonderful bit of dialogue from Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee:

[Nanny] “When you need me but don’t want me, I must stay.  When you want me but don’t need me, I must go.”

[Boy] “We will never want you!”

[Nanny] “Then I must stay.”


We can take inversion too far, and then like Yoda we’ll sound.  That gimmick from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back gave us an immediately identifiable character.  By now, however, the anastrophe has become cliché, and clichés must we avoid.

Find creative ways to use anastrophe, as Emily Dickinson did, and wonderful ways to use the chiasmus, as Shakespeare and Hammerstein and Thompson did.  Our readers will be happily surprised and thankful.

Our question :: can inversions help us or hinder us?


~~ M. A. Lee