Imprecise use of pronouns, with Doctor Who!

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One thing I see a lot at work is people using pronouns imprecisely. There was a great example in pop culture over the weekend with the season finale of Doctor Who, where an imprecise pronoun was actually used as a plot device. I’ll explain below what I mean, so please take this as your spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the episode yet! The spoiler material will be at the bottom of the post, beneath the delicious, delicious picture of David Tennant…

First, what is a pronoun? Here’s a dictionary definition.

Pronoun noun
1.  one of the major form classes, or parts of speech, comprising words used as substitutes for nouns.
2.  any such word, such as I, you, he, she, it, this, who, what, they, us, them.

Basically, it’s a word we use as a substitute for a noun (or a proper noun, like a name), to avoid repeating the noun. Here are a few examples:

Cassandra is writing a post on grammar because she (Cassandra) is a grammar geek.

Cassandra admired the Doctor Who script because it (the script) took advantage of poor grammar.

Where you need to be cautious is where the antecedent (the noun to which the pronoun is referring) is unclear. I find this happens a lot in my writing where there are two people of the same sex acting in a scene. For example:

Leander didn’t like Brad, because he was jealous.

Who is jealous? Brad or Leander? To make it clear, we need to rewrite the sentence.

Jealous, Leander didn’t like Brad.

(Better would be something like “Jealousy drove Leander’s dislike of Brad.”) In this case, the rewrite actually removed the pronoun—which is more elegant than repeating Leander’s name. That won’t always be the case.

Grammar is cool. (Image belongs to BBC; no copyright intended, although perving definitely is.)

Grammar is cool. (Image belongs to BBC; no copyright infringement intended, although perving definitely is.)

Now, what was the example from Doctor Who? It’s this quote, from a madman:

“The Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It is discovered.”

Most of the characters assumed (and the viewer was meant to assume) that the “it” was the secret. It’s logical assumption, because secrets are more traditionally discovered than graves. But in this case, the secret was actually secondary; it was the discovery of the grave that was significant. The Doctor and River both realised this as soon as they heard the quote, but they had the advantage of knowing what Trenzalore (the place mentioned in the context of the madman’s quote) was.

I think as writers we can take a lesson from this example. (Note that I added “example” after the pronoun “this” just then, because otherwise there are a lot of things preceding it to which it could have referred.) And the lesson is this one: avoid unclear antecedents for pronouns … unless you’re using it deliberately, as a plot device. Then go nuts.

Or, to paraphrase the English poet Robert Graves, master the rules of grammar before you attempt to bend or break them. :p