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Monday, February 4, 2019

How Often Should I "Refresh" a Pronoun?




A follower recently asked if I had any tips on how often to "refresh" a pronoun, meaning, after you use a name once, how many times can you use "he," "she," or "they" before needing to use their name again.

Since I haven't done any tips on it, I decided to do a short post.

Admittedly, there is something about using pronouns that makes the writing process feel more personal and intimate, as opposed to using the names. I'm not exactly sure why this is this way, but I know and see writers who sense it. My best explanation is that using the proper name feels slightly more distancing than using the pronoun. As a result, when we write certain scenes, using more pronouns just feels right. And we might be sad to have to get rid of them, even if it is for clarity.

In reality, for the reader, it rarely makes much difference. The reader's and writer's experiences may overlap in places, but they aren't the same. Usually for the reader, the character's name is what people might call an "invisible" word. Like the word "said" is considered invisible. It gets the job done and doesn't draw attention to itself. Most names function the same way, which is why you can repeat names multiple times without them (usually) sticking out. Most of the time, for the reader, the proper name doesn't feel much different than the pronoun, so for them, what matters is more of the actual function: who is doing what.

And that's the most important element, because as a writer, you are communicating to the reader. They need to know who is doing what to follow the story, and if you use too many pronouns, it won't be clear. They might not be able to keep track of the characters, or they might forget who the pronoun is referring to.

There isn't a magical number for how often you need to refresh the pronoun, but there are some guidelines.

- In a scene with multiple characters (especially of the same gender), you are going to need to use proper names more often, just so the audience can keep it straight.

- In a scene with two characters of different genders, you don't usually need to refresh as much. There is only one "he" and one "she" (or "they" if you prefer).

- And of course, a scene with a character alone will need to be refreshed even less often, but if you only use pronouns, that could potentially be annoying, in some cases. 

Just don't forget the most important rule: You are communicating to the reader.

Problems come up when it's not clear who the pronoun is referring to. For example:

George called Bart to help sell his car.

"His" can refer to either George or Bart (not to mention the sentence is a bit vague in other ways as well).

If you want to get technical and dust off your grammar book from English class, it's usually best if the pronoun is placed as close to its antecedent (the noun it's referring to) as possible.

I will say that if you have a scene with dialogue, this may often not be the case.

"How's it going?" Cheryl asked.

"Fine, I guess," April said. "Pamela is mad at me." She tucked her hair behind her ear.

Pamela is not actually in the conversation, so we can all assumed the "she" is referring to April.


At the beginning of a story, I think it is helpful to use the character's name a few times so the reader can get familiar with it. If you have new characters coming on page that are important to remember, you might want to weave in their names a few times also, so it sticks with the reader. After all, the name is what we literally see on the page when reading, and it's what we have to best identify the character.

And of course, you also don't want to go to the other extreme, where you are using the proper name all the time or overusing it (this is especially true in dialogue).

With all these things in mind, you'll have to use your best judgment.

Sometimes it's helpful to read the passage aloud. Reading aloud actually uses a different part of your brain than reading silently, and it can help you catch things that sound off. You might notice you've gone on too long without refreshing the pronoun.



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