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Rx from the Book Doctor: Did You Say What You Mean?

July 11, 2014

How can you drop a raw egg five feet onto a concrete floor without cracking it?

 

Think about it. Now read my answer.

 

Not to worry; you can never crack a concrete floor with a mere raw egg. The floor is too hard.

 

What? You did not expect that answer? Were you trying to keep from cracking the egg? Well,

that’s not what the question asked. The confusion came from the misuse of a pronoun.

 

Because pronouns should refer to the last stated noun. The pronoun “it,” in my initial question

then refers to “floor.” Even the most skilled writers, though, forget the basic rule of pronouns,

and the result is that their sentences do not always say what the writers intended.

 

I’ll state the rule again: For clarity, every pronoun should refer to the last stated noun. If the

pronoun is plural, it should refer to the last stated plural noun. Here are some examples of

correctly placed pronouns: John looked for his socks under the bed. [The pronoun “his” properly

refers to John.] Daryl and Joe worked on their homework together. [The pronoun “their” properly

refers to the plural subject, Daryl and Joe.] How can you drop a raw egg five feet, without

breaking it on the concrete floor below? [See how rearranging the original question puts the

pronoun “it” clearly after “egg” and makes the sentence say what was it really meant to say?]

 

Misplaced, incorrect, and misleading pronouns are a major issue in many of the manuscripts I

edit. Once you become aware of pronouns and the fact that they should refer to the last stated

noun, you become an aware author, an author who writes clearly, and an author whose work says what it was intended to say.

 

Let’s examine the following items I’ve found in manuscripts I edited. Ask yourself if the authors

intended to say what the sentences actually say.

 

She heard the sizzle of fajitas being served as they followed the hostess to their table. [The last

plural noun before the pronoun “they” is “fajitas,” so as written, the fajitas followed the hostess

to the table.]

 

Dark eyes crinkled against the sun as they trudged along. [I’m glad I didn’t come upon those eyes

trudging along all by themselves. Yuck!]

 

He brings a fresh bag of chips, tears open the top with his teeth, and sets them on the coffee

table. [Seeing his teeth on the table would certainly kill my appetite for chips.]

 

In rural areas, almost every farm kept a dog to kill rats and alert them to strangers. [I’ll bet the rats appreciated being alerted when strangers came near, but I’ll also bet the author meant that the dog alerted the farmers, not the rats.]

b. christmas

About the Author: Bobbie Christmas, professional editor and award-winning writer, founded Zebra Communications in 1992 to help writers prepare books for publication. A lifetime member of FWA, she oversees the Editors Helping Writers service. Because she cures ailing manuscripts, people refer to her as a book doctor. Her website is www.zebraeditor.com, and her e-mail address is Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.

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3 Comments
  1. Debby Robic permalink
    July 11, 2014 12:31 pm

    This is a frequent issue in the writing that I edit as part of my “day job,” but I am sure I have committed the same sin in my own writing now and again. Time to get out the red pen! Thanks for the much-needed reminder.

  2. July 12, 2014 2:47 am

    You said, “How can you drop a raw egg five feet, without breaking it on the concrete floor below? [See how rearranging the original question puts the pronoun “it” clearly after “egg” and makes the sentence say what was it really meant to say?]”

    Is there another rule which I have missed? I would have expected this to end with “…what it was really…”

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