1. Epileptic
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    Epileptic New Member

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    Who does "He/She" refer to when two male/females are mentioned in the same sentence.

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Epileptic, May 29, 2012.

    Examples:

    1. John pushed Bill as he walked away.

    Who walked away? John or Bill?

    2. John pushed Stacy as she walked away.

    Did Stacy walk away or did I just refer to John as being a woman?

    3. Little Jenny hugged Miss Mary, pressing her cheek against her bosom.

    Who does each "her" belong to?

    It's easy going by context clues but I want to know the grammatical rules for each case.
     
  2. thecoopertempleclause
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    thecoopertempleclause Contributing Member

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    A use of a comma would save yourself this problem.

    "John pushed Bill as he walked away," would most likely read as Bill walking away.

    "John pushed Bill, as he walked away," is more likely to mean John walking away. Although it's hard to push someone as you walk away from them, so it doesn't make much sense. I'd suggest rewriting the sentence into something like:

    "John pushed Bill, before he turned, and walked away."

    For the sake of clarity, I'd refrain from using vague sentence structures in the first place.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If there is ambiguity about which noun is the antecedent for a pronoun, the sentence should be rewritten.
     
  4. Epileptic
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    Epileptic New Member

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    So it goes by whatever makes the most sense or is there a rule? I don't even no how to search for it on Google. The best I could come up with as a search title is "Possessive pronouns," but I didn't find anything that helps me.

    This problem annoys me to no end when I read books. It may seem obvious to others but not me.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Try googling pronouns and antecedents.

    There are rules, but they don't help much in your scenario. What you will learn is how badly written some sentences you accepted without question truly are.
     
  6. indy5live
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    indy5live Active Member

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    Looks like a third-person narrative, but who in this chapter has the insight? If it's John's thoughts we are hearing then rewrite the scene from his perspective. What was he thinking or what was happening before this or after this? Just rework the paragraph to make sense. The rule in journalism was stay focused on one person at a time. If that person did something to someone else or was working with someone else, I always used the other person's name and reserved He/She for the main subject of the article. Reading the paper is a good way to learn how to write these scenes, because almost all news is about people and tnames take up space so they avoid using them as much as they can. So look for the He's and She's in the paper and see if you can identify who it is about and why you were able to tell.
     
  7. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I also found the usual mix of advice that is simply wrong and pundits touting their personal preferences as cast-iron rules. The questioner did the right thing in looking for ambiguity, and I agree with your earlier advice that the solution is to rephrase the sentence rather than depend on some obscure rule that the reader might not know and which might turn out not to be a rule at all.

    As Bill walked away, John pushed him. OR
    As John walked away, Bill pushed him.
    Same solution as 1.
    I think there you are going to have to repeat Miss Mary's name (unless somebody else can come up with something better):
    Little Jenny hugged Miss Mary, pressing her cheek against Miss Mary's bosom. OR
    Little Jenny hugged Miss Mary, pressing Miss Mary's cheek against her bosom.
     
  8. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I have a similar problem - in dialogue, do you always have to refer to the characters by name again and again, even when it's obvious? By that, I mean, for example:

    Because for example, I feel like I should be able to write "He frowned" rather than having to indicate who it is that frowned, considering we all know Mary was speaking to him?

    And I'm inclined to think this sentence as it stands reads fine actually: "Little Jenny hugged Miss Mary, pressing her cheek against her bosom." I mean, obviously the first "her" is Little Jenny, because it's her action we're following, which automatically means it must be Miss Mary's bosom she's pressing against. It's pretty hard to press your own cheek against your own bosom, and it's really weird to grab someone else's face to press into your own bosom. To indicate whose bosom and/or whose cheek it is in a sentence like that would make it sound clumsy in the extreme.

    Or that's how it comes across... Like I say, I have a problem with this myself.
     
  9. Erato
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    Erato Contributing Member

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    ^To the best of my knowledge, when the distinction is already clear due to gender, as in your example, you can use the gender-specific pronouns. When both characters are of the same gender, it's more confusing, and you will have to reword the sentence until it's clear. As Mckk says, it will often be intuitively clear even when it's grammatically ambiguous (and we can immediately rule out the possibility that Jenny takes Miss Mary's cheek and presses it into Miss Mary's bosom). But sometimes it won't be, as in "John pushed Bill as he walked away." This is best reworded to one of the following:

    As he walked away, John pushed Bill. In the absence of context which would lead us to a contrary conclusion, we take John as the subject. John walks.

    As John walked away, he pushed Bill. This is very clear. John walks.

    As Bill walked away, John pushed him. Now it's Bill who's walking.

    A change of point of view or depth of perspective will offer more possibilities.

    Bill turned to walk away. He felt a hard shove from behind and landed in the mud, and a bad nosebleed started. John laughed.

    The <insert insult>! John planted his hands on Bill's ribs and pushed.

    I started to go, and the ground flew up to meet me.



    You can get creative with this and have it be clear at the same time. Perhaps you'll have to repeat a name. That's probably all right. Clarity comes first.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This is what matters most.

    If it's unclear, disambiguate. If that looks awkward, consider ways to restructure the sentence(s). Maybe you need to change the approach completely.
     
  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry, but that made me wince. She didn't bury her cheek in a tight hug any more than she buried it in a shroud, and one buries in, not against.
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    mckk...
    your first sentence's preceding dialog tag isn't one, needs a period after 'up' not a comma... and since the narrative was about sam, the line of mary's dialog should have been indented... there are other problems, as well... here's how this could be written properly and without pronoun/name confusion/profusion [line break = indent]:

    hope you can see why all the changes had to be made...

    hugs, m
     
  13. Jud
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    Jud Member

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    The simple answer when you hit a problem like this is to stop, go back, and think of a different way to say it. Just because that sentence was the first that came to you, doesn't mean you have to use it.
     
  14. thecoopertempleclause
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    thecoopertempleclause Contributing Member

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    No, there are a few ways you can present dialogue without needing to affix a tag each time.

    Example 1:
    Implied tags
    John grabbed Susan by the shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me about the baby?" he asked.

    "Since when is my life any of your business. You wanna know so bad, read my blog," she said.

    "None of my business? It might be my child!"

    "It's not. I've already been tested for demon spawn."

    "Ha-frickin'-larious," he said.

    This works best when only two people are conversing, even then it's worth dropping in a he said/she said every four or five lines. If your characters are both the same gender, use their name instead.

    Example 2:
    Action linked
    "I can't do it." Clorvax's eyes were fixed on the button in front of him, his hand shook as it hovered above it.

    Jass grabbed him with both of her hands on his shoulders as she stood behind him. "You have to. It's the only way to save the cocoon."

    Here you attribute action to a character in description, then link dialogue to the paragraph. Therefore the reader knows that the paragraph all pertains to one character.

    There are probably other ways. To be honest, a section of he said/she said isn't a bad thing, since most readers barely even acknowledge them consciously. Remember, you spend an hour writing words which will take a reader less than a minute to read. So many writers tend to get paranoid about repetitive dialogue tags because they spend more time with them. Don't be.
     
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  15. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Hi Mama, yes I did wonder if "spoke up" is a dialogue tag. Thanks for the clarification. So I was right about the fact that it is not necessary to write "Mary waited" but rather simply "She waited".

    I can certainly see what you have written is better, and much clearer. However I am missing what "problems" (grammatical, I presume?) are in my current example?

    Thanks again!
     
  16. thecoopertempleclause
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    thecoopertempleclause Contributing Member

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    ----------------
    Sam was eating when Mary spoke up, "So where do we go from here?"
    Sam/He frowned, putting his fork down. "I'm not sure."
    She/Mary waited.
    "I think we should break up." He/Sam dabbed a napkin at his lips.

    ---------------
    The only obvious grammatical error is in your first sentence. You can have the "Sam was eating when Mary spoke up" sentence, but it must be finished with a full-stop, not a comma.
    I know it's only an example, but your third sentence is in dire need of added description. There's ample room here to spice up the break. How about: "She searched Sam's eyes for any indication of what was to come. He meticulously avoided meeting her gaze. The air was thick with tension between them, silent. Sam stared at the wall behind Mary, his deep breath only partly breaking the hushed atmosphere."

    That way, the reader experiences a kind of break in the conversation too. It could be a prime time to enter your protagonists thoughts too.
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    'less is more' and its good ol' army cuz, the 'K.I.S.S.!' principle are often preferred, so i certainly wouldn't say there's any 'dire need of added description'... it's a matter of author choice and voice...
     
  18. manfredjed
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    manfredjed New Member

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    Clarity with pronouns and possessive pronouns

    In the sentence, "After Fred saw Ethyl, he gave her a kiss.", it is obvious he refers to Fred and her refers to Ethyl.

    When two members of the same sex are in a similar sentence, such as in, "When Fred punched Ricky, he gave him a black eye," is it really all that clear to whom the pronoun and the possessive pronoun refers?

    Thanks in advance for your advice.
     
  19. loomingtale
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    loomingtale Member

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    I don't know what is the standard way of dealing with this problem, but I repeat one of the names in place of the noun or possessive noun; It makes the sentence very clear. But in your example of Fred and Ricky it is obvious that the guy who received the punch got the black eye :p
     
  20. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    If I think there is the slightest chance of misunderstanding with pronouns, I always reword, e.g.
    Fred punched Ricky and gave him a black eye.
    Fred punched Ricky, giving him a black eye.
    Fred gave Ricky a black eye.

    Or any other (more interesting) way of describing the event.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A page (free, and always good reading) has just addressed this. "Both you and your author would do well to stop searching for a rule to govern all your sentences and simply rephrase if it isn’t crystal clear what it refers to" was the advice.

    Of course, the only possible referent for that final "it" is "rule" (it has to be a singular impersonal noun), which doesn't make sense...
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The Chicago Manual of Style Q&A is not the manual itself, of course, but that's good advice no matter where it comes from.
     

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