You can only get away with so much he said, she said in your story until your readers are confused as to who is talking. This is even more true if the two characters use the same gendered (or gender-neutral) pronoun. But, on the other hand, it can be a little awkward to keep restating your characters’ names every single time they appear in a scene. So, how can an author know where the line is between too much and too little? I am of the opinion that the answer can be found in having a good understanding of the rules by which pronouns function in a sentence.
What is a Pronoun?
A pronoun stands in place for a noun or group of nouns. There are quite a few categories of pronouns.
Subject pronouns include: I, you, he, she, it, they, and we. These replace a noun or noun phrase which is the subject of a sentence.
Object pronouns include: me, you, him, her, it, us, and them. These replace a noun or noun phrase which is the object of a sentence.
Possessive pronouns include: mine, his, hers, its, ours, yours, their, and theirs. These replace a noun phrase which include a possessive adjective.
Reflective pronouns in include: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves, and (in case of singular gender-neutral use) themself. These are used to rename the subject of the sentence.
Demonstrative pronouns include: this, that, these, and those. These refer to nouns which are related by distance, either nearby or far away.
Relative pronouns include: who, whom, what, which, whose, whoever, whomever, whatever, whichever, and that. These correlate a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun phrase with another part of the sentence.
Indefinite pronouns include: all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, both, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, few, many, neither, nobody, none, no one, nothing, one, several, some, somebody, someone, and something. These replace unspecified nouns or noun phrases.
Interrogative pronouns include: who, whom, what, which, whose, whoever, whomever, whatever, and whichever. They are used in the place of a noun in questions.
Breaking Down the Sentence
One of the best ways to understand a sentence is to break it down into its constituent parts and map the ways in which these parts connect to each other. To do this, you need to know parts of speech like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Once you can identify these parts of speech, you can start to see how they connect to each other to build meaning within a sentence. The way that linguists typically show this is through something called a tree structure or syntax tree.
They look like this:
(Image from: http://68.media.tumblr.com/014d358315db94dfe9ea7ff622928387/tumblr_inline_ndnyhciWD71rplshr.png)
In this example, you can see that the top most label, or node, is the sentence. After this it continues to branch to noun phrase and verb phrase, and then to determiner and noun and verb and noun phrase, and finally it finished with another single noun. At the last level of a tree structure, every part of speech is labeled. There are a few different types of tree structures used depending on which theories you prefer, but this is a general constituency relation based tree and should do just fine for our purposes.
Here is a more complicated sentence with a more complex tree structure:
(Image from: http://achsstephens.weebly.com/uploads/1/3/2/2/13224719/how-to-build-a-tree-diagrams-answer-key-for-homework-and-review1.pdf)
This tree structure features auxiliary verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions and prepositional phrases, and there are even a couple possessive pronouns.
Tree structures can be really helpful when a sentence is ambiguous. For an example of this, look at these two different tree structures for the same sentence:
(Images from: http://www.nltk.org/book/ch08.html)
In the first example, you can see that the noun phrase that includes “an elephant” is separate from the prepositional phrase “in my pajamas” and thus the pajamas are attached to the noun phrase “I” instead of “an elephant”. In the second example, the prepositional phrase in now under the umbrella of the noun phrase containing “an elephant.” In the first one, I am the one wearing my pajamas, whereas in the second one, the elephant is wearing my pajamas.
Indexing, Binding, and C-Commands
The part of tree structure theory that can really help you to understand pronouns is Binding Theory. Binding theory describes the structural relations between nouns. There are three types of nouns identified in binding theory: R-expressions, anaphors, and pronouns.
R-expressions are explicitly stated noun phrases that referred to a specific entity. They often include a determiner or are a proper name. Examples include: the orange cat, John Wayne, and a teddy bear.
Anaphors are noun phrases that must get their meaning from another noun phrase in the sentence. These include reflexive nouns like: myself, yourself, and himself.
Pronouns here are used to refer to the other types of pronouns, which can get their meaning through a few ways, including: from another word in the sentence, a noun previously mentioned, or by context.
Another term to know is Antecedent. This is the noun that gives meaning to a pronoun or anaphor (it is typically an R-expression type noun). We show which nouns are giving meaning to which pronoun by indexing the nouns in the sentence with letters and pairing the letters when the nouns and pronouns refer to the same thing.
For example: Fredi is impressed with himselfi.
Both “Fred” and “himself” refer to Fred, so they both get indexed with the letter “j”.
In this example,
Fredi asked whether Jimi mentioned himk/j.
The “him” can refer to either Fred or another person who has been identified outside the sentence, but it can’t refer to Jim.
This is because of the rules of binding. The rules of binding are that A binds B if and only if,
A c-commands B
A and B are co-indexed.
The unfamiliar word here is c-command.
C-commanding has to do with which parts of the tree (nodes) dominate others. The rules of c-commanding are that node A c-commands node B if and only if:
A does not dominate B
B does not dominate A
The lowest branching node that dominates A also dominates B.
In this sample tree:
(Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:C-command.png)
M doesn’t c-command any node, A c-commands B, C, D, E, F, and G, B c-commands A, C c-commands D, F, and G, D c-commands C and E, E c-commands D, F, and G, F c-commands G, and G c-commands F.
Very confusing! But once you trace it out with your finger a few times it makes a lot more sense. This is the rule that governs which pronouns can be used and where and to what they can refer. Additionally, these rules only apply within a binding domain. A binding domain is the immediate clause in which it is found.
Here are the rules for pronouns:
1: An anaphor must be bound in its binding domain.
2: A pronoun must not be bound in its binding domain.
3: An R-expression cannot be bound.
We’ll go through a few examples:
Kenk watched Markj hit himselfj.
In this sentence, the “himself” must refer to Mark because it is within the binding domain of Mark and not Ken. This is because the phrase “Mark hit himself” is complete sentence. This separates it from being within the binding domain of Ken.
(Image made using: http://mshang.ca/syntree/)
If we want the pronoun to refer to Ken we have to change it from being an anaphor.
Kenk watched Markj hit himk/i.
Now, since the rule is that the pronoun can’t be in the same binding domain as its antecedent, the pronoun can refer to Ken. However, it can also refer to any other masculine identified noun that has been mentioned recently such as in the following example:
Johni walked over to Markj and Kenk. Kenk watched Markj hit himk/i/m.
Now, context tells us that the “him” was most likely John and not Ken.
Another thing to watch out for is possessive pronouns which can exist both within or outside of a binding domain. For example,
Mayi thinks that Idaj dislikes heri/j/k husband.
In this example, the her could refer to either “May,” “Ida,” or to a different antecedent altogether.
The take away
Understanding the rules of how pronouns can and can’t work in a sentence can help to keep a writer from accidentally using one incorrectly. Additionally, while breaking down every sentence isn’t feasible due to time constraints, being aware of the way that a sentence – especially a sentence with multiple clauses – is structured can help an author to keep track of where their pronouns and antecedents are in relation to each other. And lastly, even though looking at binding theory won’t always answer the question of who is talking, it can help an author to take note of possible places of confusion. When you notice such a place exists, just do you and your readers a favor and use the character’s name.
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.