Pronouns of Biblical Proportions


Today’s writing lesson comes from the Genesis, right after Joseph ben Jacob was sold by his brothers:

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there.

The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand.

So Joseph found favor in his sight and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. So it was, from the time that he made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field.

Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate (Genesis 39: 1-6, NKJ version).

Did you have any trouble following that? Or did you have to backtrack to see what was going on? Did the pronouns throw you off?

My bet is that you had no trouble with the passage, except that maybe it was long. Readers are smart. If you make the path clear enough for them to follow, they have no trouble keeping up.

But today’s tendency is to identify each character by name as he is mentioned, to “avoid confusion.” Often that leads to the reader getting ripped out of the story because the practice is making her nuts—or maybe it’s just me. I don’t know, but it does make me nuts. If the above passage were edited by today’s standards, it would look much like this:

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there.

The Lord was with Joseph, and Joseph was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with Joseph and that the Lord made all Joseph did to prosper in his hand.

So Joseph found favor in Potiphar’s sight and served him. Then Potiphar made Joseph overseer of his house, and all that Potiphar had he put under Joseph’s authority. So it was, from the time that Potiphar made Joseph overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that Potiphar had in the house and in the field.

Thus Potiphar left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and Potiphar did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate.

I bet you could follow that too, but fess up—didn’t it drive you just a little nuts? Didn’t you find the original a much smoother read? Or, as I said, maybe it’s just me.

Notice that whenever the Lord was included in the mix of characters, giving the scene three male participants, identifiers were in place to avoid confusing the reader. Otherwise, the character was identified easily by the role he played and what we knew about him. Potiphar was the owner; Joseph was the servant. So we understand this sentence in the context:

Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority.

We understand this through a logic so simple that we don’t even have to stop and think about it.

That’s why I tend to trust my beta readers more than my editors when it comes to using pronouns. Beta readers let me know when a passage confuses them because they don’t know who’s doing the action, and they’re confused far less often than editors are. Usage rules don’t allow an editor to overlook that line, even though the meaning is made clear through the context. Line editors, especially, would engage in some hair pulling because they focus more on the sentence construction and the rules that dictate them than they do the context.

This issue is more contemporary than historical, probably in rebellion of pieces in which the characters involved weren’t named for several pages. After a while, the context wasn’t just confusing, it was frustrating because we’d have to flip back, retrace, and try to figure out who was who. I remember reading several books like that, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a single example right now.

I think it’s time to find a happy medium. Time to trust our readers again. Like I said, my beta readers let me know when something confuses them. They provide the happy medium between the author, to whom everything makes sense, and the editor, to whom nothing outside the rule of grammatical law makes sense.

Write your piece the way you see it in your head. Trust your reader to let you know if they visualize it the same way you do.

 

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Pronouns of Biblical Proportions

  1. Thank you! I so agree. Now, going back to remove a few unneeded names, unless my beta’s tell me to put some back in. 😀 I must say, I didn’t use as many names as in your second illustration, but your post encourages me to eliminate a few more. 🙂

    Like

  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    I’m a big fan of the “intimacy of pronouns.” But I think I’ve gone too far with them, to the point of confusion, in some of my books. Still working on the right balance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kassyparis says:

    I agree. I try to write using pronouns instead of proper nouns whenever I can. I try to make sure the
    characters are identified near the beginning of the page, but only re-identify them again when it is needed for clarity. As long as there are only two characters involved in the dialog, that is. My crit group is a boon for making sure of the clarity.

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