Keeping your distance
Posted May 28, 2011on:
There’s a place in this world for pronouns. And no, this isn’t going to be some dry instructional piece on the proper use of grammatical elements that any writer, or reader for that matter, should have learned in high school, if not before. But I just noticed myself doing something in my current WIP that I’ve often decried in other people’s books, so I thought I would just mention the subject.
A pronoun is an indexical word, which I’m sure means nothing to you. An indexical is a word that changes its meaning depending on who says it. If John and James are in a room and John says ‘he’, he means James. When James says ‘he’, he means John. This makes them very handy words to have around, since they allow the language containing them to be more flexible. Dialog especially benefits from them. Nothing makes
dialog it sound more clunky and unrealistic nowadays than continual use of a character’s given name or rank. (This was the error I found myself making, I used a character’s name twice in quick succession.)
Word usage is like polishing stones, you can always tell how young or old a language is by the complexity of it rules. Over time the rules get worn down, because people don’t like to talk that way if a better way comes along. Contractions save a syllable or more, plus a pause between words. This is a luxury that most people have no time or use for, just as the rule for not ending a sentence with a preposition is an archaism for which people equally have no use. It adds words, and work, to a sentence to use them. In the interest of verbal economy they have to go.
The importance here is not grammatical correctness, since either ‘he’ or ‘James’ would be correct, but what yanks you the reader/viewer out of the story. Not just the use of proper names where most people would use a pronoun, but in the case of TV shows, an emphasis on the proper enunciation of words, especially initial H’s that would ordinarily be skipped. I’ve been seeing more, lately, although since I read fantasy novels it’s harder to say what is quite right. Word usage is part of the world-building, an author can show the age of a given culture simply by means of the complexity of the rules. Which can sometimes cause issues, since I the reader would use a pronoun and a contraction, where the immortal elf aristocrat talking would not use either. It takes a certain degree of care on the part of the author to make the transition not seem forced. Unless it is forced, in which case the author needs to show why. In A Warrior Made, my character Janosec suddenly starts talking in a very poetic and roundabout way, which is a rather sudden change for him. But he’s got a) a specific person to whom he is talking and b) a companion who also notices the strangeness, wondering why on the reader’s behalf. (Yes there is a reason. Trust me.)
What? I never said it wouldn’t be instructional, just not dry.