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After reading the
the sentence, you are
now aware that the
the human brain
often does not
inform you that the
the word ‘the’ has
been repeated twice
‘Twas ever thus. You make the mistake of taking in a stray cat and immediately find a stream of lost puppies, sick hedgehogs and fledgling birds hammering on your door. I’ve done my poor best on behalf of the endangered adverb and now must turn my attention to other hapless parts of speech.
The problem is repetition. Repetition seems to be the bubonic plague of CC, deadly, contagious and of epidemic proportions. To be damned by its simple existence.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a congenital dislike of using the same word over again. I will turn verbal somersaults to avoid it. I will restructure sentences. I will consult the thesaurus and have no shame in saying so. I am not against pointing out the existence of obvious ‘echoes’ per se. I do it myself.
But repetition can be a deliberate decision of style, for effect, especially dramatic emphasis, for balance, even, on rare occasions for simply the rhyme or rhythm. Whether it works or not is a subjective aesthetic judgement and so we shall pass it by.
The real problem, to me, is that echoing often just does not echo.
This is especially true of the little people, the pronouns, conjugations of the verb to be, and definite articles. Though why nobody ever seems to point out an overabundance of ‘a’s is an interesting question. On the other hand, the word ‘that’ is particularly oppressed. But these are jolly useful chaps. Always helpful and self-effacing in my experience. Yet any convivial gathering of these good-hearted fellows is pounced upon and the riot act proclaimed.
You may well disagree, but I feel that there is little justification for pinging them. Yet, time and time again, they are identified, counted and excoriated. And the only criterion seems to be number.
Typical comments: You could lose the first ‘the’ because there are two others in this sentence. Six sentences start with the in this paragraph. There are three was words - better do a search. There are seven hers. I think it's better to get rid of pronouns whenever possible. Too many examples of it. Five she statements in a row. And so on.
I have no doubt it is done with the best of motives, but rarely, if ever, is the criticism buttressed with any kind of reason. Simply being there in any number is sufficient to damn them. I consider it as being a thing of habit, a Pavlovian response, a synthetic ‘problem’. The only ones who notice it are the ones looking for it. It is the white glove at the weekly inspection. And I shall attempt to provide reasons why I think this is the case.
Just read the following. Simply read it.
I’m srue yvuoe seen tihs bfroee. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.
The phenomenon is well known to cognitive psychology, as is the fact that we recognize words by their ‘shape’. This is why reading capitalised letters takes longer to process. Then there is priming, where some contextual clue affects recognition speed. The Stroop effect is a good example, in which it takes longer to read colour names when the letters are in a different colour to that described by the word.
This is the evidence that we do not read as we were taught to, and probably, as most of us still think we do. The cat sat on the mat model. Instead, our brain rushes ahead to grasp the meaning, makes big assumptions and intuitive leaps and be damned to the detail. Which is why we get the well-known phenomenon of totally misreading newspaper headlines, as in ‘Woollen Mill Burns Down’ read as ‘Wooden Mill Burns Down.’ It also explains that irritating habit of making some glaring mistake and repeatedly failing to see it when we check our work. Our brain happily replaces the wrong word with the right word and doesn’t bother informing us of the fact.
Here’s one. How many letter Fs are in the following?
FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.
Now, you may have come across it before, and you have certainly been alerted to the need for caution, but how many failed to find six? At least on the first run through. Three is the norm. If you’re not convinced, try it out on someone else, without any prewarning. The brain does not process the preposition ‘of’, because it can grasp the meaning perfectly well without it.
It effectively ignores it. Such simple and very common words are ‘invisible’ words. Remember the missed ‘the’ words at the beginning? They can be required to avoid ambiguity and aid clarity, but are frequently, to all intents and purposes, practically redundant.
Even where omission can cause a ‘hiccup’ on reading, we often simply do not notice it.
John went to the cupboard, got out a biscuit and went to the table where sat waiting for Mary to arrive.
And I bet a very sexy Mary wearing black suspenders and stockings and nothing else appeared, even fewer of you would have noticed the missing ‘he’ (I’m just talking to the boys here). And did you spot the missing ‘if’?
It is well documented that noticeable verbal echoes are a function of the length of the word and its familiarity. ‘Big’ unusual words stand out. But short common words just do not. And as evidence that they are, effectively, invisible, let us consider pronouns in particular.
Firstly, and most obviously, in first person stories, ‘I’ is used ad nauseam. Yet, no-one notices! OK, I know there is no real alternative, but the point is – no-one notices!
Secondly, I found books which relied heavily on the repetitive use of personal names. Having read those books, it had never come to my attention, and it didn’t bother me a whit. So, I find it hard to understand why, when the ‘echo’ of a personal noun caused me no problems, the repetition of an innocuous pronoun should.
Thirdly, I took a random paragraph from Dickens (Great Expectations, Chapter III. Final paragraph) and found it contained 33 pronouns in 179 words, over 18%, significantly more than the ‘recommended’ maximum of online style editors.
Of course, you may say that they had a different style then, and no-one writes like that anymore, but is that not accepting that it is a matter of fashion lacking any objective basis?
Finally, I did my own little survey. Giving unsuspecting readers (who had not been through the CC mill) a section that has been criticised for overuse of pronouns. When asked to make any comment about the writing style that occurred to them, not a single one noticed the pronouns. You are welcome to try this one at home.
So, I could find no ‘evidence’ that pronoun use is actually a problem. There may be extreme cases, but normally they are simply not noticed.
So what is the basis for this zealous persecution?
Bland assertion as far as I can make out.
The Writing Centre simply says ‘Consolidate your writing by cutting down strings of pronouns.’ How and why it does this is not mentioned. Similarly, the Prowriting Aid e-book, Twenty Editorial Tips From Professional Writers, states:
You should check your pronoun percentage. Ideally it should fall somewhere between 4% and 15%. Any more than this and your writing can feel dull.
Note the weasel word can. Meaning what? Drink tap water and you can get drunk? Well, it’s actually logically true.
But A and B is NOT A therefore B, while can does not infer will.
Disregarding the clever manipulation of words, or their incompetent use, whichever it be, on what basis is it concluded that 16% pronouns makes writing feel dull? What well-designed, properly double-blinded, peer-reviewed test involving a statistically meaningful sample has been carried out, and duly replicated? Or is it just someone’s opinion, worth no more and no less than that of anyone else?
Sorry, can’t resist this. But the passage cited contained 25 words of which six were pronouns. 24%! Whoops. But be fair, it was pretty dull.
Apart from that, the only actual reason I can find given, is the accepted problem of pronoun ambiguity. And that has nothing to do with number.
‘All this is profoundly boring,’ I hear you say, ‘but explain to me why do I actually notice a sequence of pronouns then?’
The answer, I think, is simple. You look for them.
Once you begin looking for such things, you will find them, you become sensitised to them, and they stand out. I am convinced that this is behind much of the drive against invisible words. I can say this, because I have read all my life and never ever been bothered by these issues, never consciously noting them, but now I find myself seeing them in both my own and other people’s work. And once the brain has got something in its sights, it’s very difficult, if not all but impossible, to deflect it. The famous ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’
Which of these words have I used above? Aesthetic, humanity, congenial. You can check later. I doubt that you will be right. There was no reason for you to take special notice.
Will you spot the word enigmatic below? I’ll bet if the word enigmatic appears, you will see it, recognise it instantly and remember seeing it. You have been primed to see it.
There are other factors that play an important role. Peer pressure (look up the Asch conformity test – that might surprise you) and the power of authority (especially when dogmatically asserted in print), the all-pervasive confirmation bias and the psychological truism that the more we invest in a point of view the more reluctant we are to question it.
It is clear that reading is a complex skill and relies greatly on concentration on key words and the creation of predicted meanings depending upon the context. The evidence is strong that the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, the have, was, is words are almost invisible. Unless primed to see them, they simply slip beneath our notice. We see the building, the doors, windows, chimneys, but not the bricks.
But why get so worked up about such ‘invisible words’? If they are so beneath our notice why not let them be herded off to the knacker’s yard?
Well, in the case of pronouns at least, it’s because I positively like them. I’m not entirely sure why. I wonder if they immediately throw you into the story? Perhaps a touch of the enigmatic? Maybe, because they somehow produce a feeling of intimacy, by implying previous familiarity? Then pronouns do generally tend to make the writing easier to read and to have greater fluidity. In my opinion, of course. And I do dislike the awkward contortions sometimes forced upon authors in an attempt to avoid repetition, when it could all be said so much easier and more elegantly. I just don’t know. But it is the natural way I write. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to use pronouns, merely that it is up to you, and what you feel works.
As always, there are the obvious provisos. Like anything, such words can be overused until they force themselves into the consciousness of the reader, but I suspect that will require a very high incidence and be associated with metronomic sentence formation and barren prose. Pronouns can lead to ambiguity, or be positively misleading. If that is what you think in a particular case, as a critic, then say so. That is your job. But not to criticise repetition simply because it is there.
I investigated some of these style checkers and found one that calculated a ‘Bad Phrase Score’ ‘based on the quality and quantity of trite or inappropriate words, phrases, and clichés’. To my total lack of surprise, it was the poor, inoffensive ‘invisible’ words that took the brunt, though how the word ‘me’ could be characterised as trite, inappropriate or a cliché is beyond me.
The list of my own bad words, from a sample I submitted, started with the most ‘egregious’ and included very, me, small, then, said, looked, do, end, you, well, we, use, new, know, is, are, about, was and but. (www.paperrater.com). But then, if you said to me do we know they are ‘extremely bad in a way that is very noticeable’ (the definition of egregious) we would have to fumigate the whole paragraph.
Another advised me to remove seven examples of ‘it’ from twelve examples. I was graciously permitted to keep five. So, blithely disregarding context, it (sorry, missed that little blighter) calculates precisely how many pronouns you can use. (www.prowritingaid.com). Based on exactly what?
The game is given away on www.autocrit.com, where the figures are based on what they call ‘compare to fiction’. In other words, they analyse published work quantitatively and that is the criterion against which your work is measured. If ever I have come across a system designed to produce anodyne, derivative and cloned writing, this is it. It is the archetypal vicious circle.
I am told that editors do not ‘like’ too many pronouns, strongly object to ‘was’ sentences and the like. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. But ultimately, it is up to you, the writer, to decide whether you should cravenly pander to ovine fashion or take your own individual and noble-minded path in defiance of stale custom. Alternatively, perhaps you should pragmatically consider the real world and its importance rather than blindly following a bloody-minded path to self-immolation. Your choice.
But it IS a choice.
So, where you draw the line is up to you. You write how you feel you want to write, what comes ‘naturally’ to you. Listen to advice and consider it well, but, at the end of the paragraph, you are the writer and yours the decision.
Just remember the words of Mark Twain.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
Wait a minute. 18%?
Too many pronouns, Mr Twain. Too many pronouns.
Regards to you all.