Errors & Omissions: Campaign against overworked pronouns gets off on the right track

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The Independent Online

Last week this column launched a campaign against the habit of making the same pronoun stand for two or more different people in the course of a single sentence. The campaign has got off to an excellent start.

But first, the bad news: there is still a good deal of confusion. This example is from a news story, published on Tuesday, about a legal battle between an American pastor called Phelps who hates "fags" and stages protests at military funerals and a Mr Snyder, the father of a marine killed in Iraq. Pick your way through this:

"Mr Snyder probably has the sympathy of nearly everyone in the United States ... When the appeals court withdrew his award and additionally ordered that he pay about $16,000 to Mr Phelps to help defray his legal costs, the conservative Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly stepped forward to pay the money for him. His gesture reflected the conflicting instinct that the constitution is sacred, but so too are military funerals."

The initial "his" and "he" refer to Snyder. But "his legal costs" indicates Phelps. At the end of that sentence, "him" is Snyder again. The very next word "His", at the start of the final sentence, belongs neither to Snyder nor to Phelps, but to O'Reilly.

Good books don't do that sort of thing – which brings us to the good news. Last week we invited readers to come up with counter-examples where reputable authors have had the same pronoun referring to different people in the same sentence. I am glad to say that only one instance has been found. Dan Benton writes in with this, from John Cheever's Bullet Park.

"He had started to read the Times again when he noticed that Harry Shinglehouse had vanished. He swung around to see if Harry had changed his position but he was not on the platform. Looking back to the tracks he saw a highly polished brown loafer lying on the cinders. 'My God,' he finally said. 'That fellow. What's his name. He was sucked under the train.'"

Undoubtedly, in the second sentence, "he" is two different people. But Cheever gets away with it because one of them is the protagonist through whose eyes the action is being observed; so the reader cannot lose track of who is who. Things are not so easy for readers of news reports.

The problem: One of the items in Matthew Norman's Monday diary column began thus: "I am distressed that The Lady war continues." That should be "the Lady war". The definite article "the" here applies properly to the noun "war"; it is not, in this case, part of the title of the magazine The Lady. The war at The Lady is the Lady war.

Up and down: On an opinion page on Monday, D J Taylor commented on the possibility that J K Rowling might write more Harry Potter novels: "Harry, Ron, Hermione and their chums are still roving effortlessly through her dreams and it would be wrong to bring the drawbridge definitively down on the prospect of their reappearance."

A fully working drawbridge is, of course, one of the best-loved exhibits in the Museum of Metaphoric Antiquities, along with linchpins and shuttles, keystones and mainstays, and all the other objects once familiar in daily life that survive in common use today only as metaphors. A visit to the museum is a must for writers who want to avoid metaphoric mix-ups. In this case, Taylor has not recalled how a drawbridge works. A gate or portcullis may be lowered to bar the way, but a drawbridge is raised.

Journalese: This is from Wednesday's report about the struggle for control of Liverpool Football Club: "NESV is part-controlled by John W Henry, a futures trading adviser and dollar billionaire whose fortune has been estimated at more than $600m."

Mr Henry is certainly rich, but to become a billionaire he will need about $400m more. The writer, one feels, is simply willing him to be a billionaire, and journalese arithmetic rounds every figure up to make it more exciting.