The Perplexing Pronoun Problem

Disclaimer: pronouns, in respect to trans people and gender more broadly, are having a moment right now. While that isn’t the focus of this post, I will be talking about pronouns in this way toward the end. If this bothers you, feel free to find someone who cares.

Pronouns. On their face, a pretty simple concept. A pronoun is just a generic word we use in place of a proper noun. He, she, they, it, we, you, etc. are all examples of common pronouns. We learned them in school and they feel pretty simple. What your English class perhaps didn’t teach you is when to use them.

Maybe you’re thinking: “of course I know how to use pronouns, I use them every day.” But that is exactly what I’m talking about. The parts of speech we use the most are the ones that need the most interrogation in our writing. In speech, if we construct an awkward sentence, it lasts a few seconds before we move on. In writing, that same awkward sentence can sit with the reader for much longer, especially if it’s awkward enough to pull them out of the story. With that in mind, let’s talk about avoiding awkwardness with pronouns.

When you have one character in the scene, it can be pretty intuitive where to place the pronouns. You really only need the character’s name every few paragraphs specifically to keep them in the readers mind. Any more than that and you risk redundant awkwardness. Take this paragraph for example:

Lydia woke up exhausted. Three hours wasn’t enough for anybody and her body was going to remind her of that every second of the day. It wasn’t like she didn’t want more, but the job wasn’t going to do itself and it wasn’t like there was anyone else who could do it. She had resigned herself long ago to the occasional twenty hour day. She just hoped she wasn’t in for another one. Judging from the noise already coming from down the hall, she wasn’t going to hold her breath.

In that paragraph, I reference the POV character, Lydia, in every sentence, but only once do I actually use her name. Contrast that with this paragraph:

Lydia woke up exhausted. Three hours wasn’t enough for anybody and Lydia’s body was going to remind her of that every second of the day. It wasn’t like Lydia didn’t want more, but the job wasn’t going to do itself and it wasn’t like there was anyone else who could do it. Lydia had resigned herself long ago to the occasional twenty hour day. Lydia just hoped she wasn’t in for another one. Judging from the noise already coming from down the hall, she wasn’t going to hold her breath.

Notice how that paragraph is a much clunkier read than the first one, and I didn’t even replace all the pronouns referring to Lydia in it. But I bet you still noticed all the “Lydias” there. That’s because proper nouns, or really any word that’s been Capitalized in the middle of a sentence, register to your brain as important, so you don’t glide over them like you do the other words in the sentence. That means every repetition of a proper noun in your writing forces the reader to slow down. This can be used to great effect if that is your intention, but when done unintentionally, can make the piece harder to read than necessary.

Of course, that’s great for scenes with one character, but how many single-character scenes do we really have? What about scenes with a few speaking or acting characters? As you might guess, that doesn’t have as clean-cut of an answer. In scenes where each character has different pronouns, it’s basically the same as for one character. We know which pronoun corresponds to which character and can maintain that for a few paragraphs. For scenes where two or more characters have the same pronouns, it’s a little stickier but the general rule is; when the action is being done by someone else with the same pronoun as the previously named person, use the name, any action they do after that until the next person does one can use a pronoun. That sounded confusing, let’s look at an example:

Lydia rushed down the hall with sirens blaring all around her. She burst into the control room where James and Stephani were already at their consoles.
“What’s going on?” she demanded of them.
“I don’t know,” responded Stephani. “But I’m working on it.” Her fingers flew over the keyboard, as she presumably ran diagnostics over every electrical piece on the ship. She reached up to her screen and gave it a flick. “There’s something odd on the one of the external sensors. I’ve sent it over to James to look at.”
James swiped frantically over his five screens. “I’m not seeing anything outside the ship. Are you sure that sensor isn’t just faulty?”
“I’ve double-checked,” she replied. “It’s responding just fine, but we can always check again.” She squinted at her screen. “Although, it does look like the only thing it could be.”
Lydia sighed. Another long day. “I’ll send someone to look at it,” she said. “If we’re lucky, that’s all it’ll be.”

This demonstrates what I mean by the rule. First, it mentions Lydia by name. Every action she does after that uses pronouns, until Stephani does an action where it uses her name instead. It continues with pronouns until Lydia does an action again.

Sometimes, it may feel as if you need to use character’s names more often for clarity, but readers understand more than we typically give them credit for. There needs to be a balance maintained between clarity and redundancy, which is where the rule comes in handy. Of course, the best way to ensure that your writing is clear while making sure it reads well is to have someone else read it but reducing that redundancy before you even send it to a reader will create even better writing.

Now, when to use them isn’t the only sticky thing about pronouns, what pronouns to use can be difficult at times. I’ve seen on more than one occasion someone asking how to write trans characters, especially in respect to pronouns.

And here’s my second disclaimer: I do not speak for the entire trans community, so please don’t use this as your only source of information for pronoun use in regards to trans characters.

With that out of the way, let’s say you have a trans character. What pronouns do you use? The simple answer is: whatever pronouns they use post-transition. Yes, even if you’re talking about things they did pre-transition. As an example, let’s say that Stephani from the earlier example is a trans woman and worked on another ship before her transition.

Stephani’s eyes went wide and she froze at her screen.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lydia.
“It’s just-” Stephani began without looking up. “This is like back then.”
That explained the look. Lydia knew that there had been some disaster on Stephani’s previous assignment. Some diagnostic she had gotten wrong that ended up with people getting hurt. She never offered any details and Lydia never pried.
“Are you good?” she asked.
Stephani shook herself out and nodded. “I’ve got this. I’m stronger than I was back then.”

That may not be the strongest example, but you get the idea. Use the character’s current pronouns even when describing pre-transition actions. I’d say that this rule would also apply to full-on flashbacks, as it keeps a more consistent character for readers and limits confusion. In fact, unless you’re writing a story specifically about transition, (which, if you’re cis, I’d strongly discourage) there is no reason to use a trans person’s previous pronouns.

I’d like to talk about the grammar around neopronouns but there’s too much there for me to throw in at the end of an article. I will say, however, that if you go on social media and look at the profile of people who list their pronouns, it’s usually listed the same way: she/her, he/him, they/them, etc. This gives you an excellent template to use neopronouns properly as when you run into someone with them, they’re usually listed in that same format. For example, if someone has xie/xer as xer pronouns, you’d use xie in place of she and xer in place of her. Of course, I can’t say that will map perfectly for every neopronoun out there but it’s a good start for your research on specific pronouns.

And that’s it! As always, there are no hard and fast rules in writing, just suggestions and norms. The most important thing is intentionality in your writing so your readers feel what you actually want them to feel and your words don’t get in the way of that. The more you know about the craft of writing, the better you can control how you “break” the “rules” of it.

If you like these articles, maybe consider buying my book? See the things I talk about in action.

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