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Author Topic: Positioning pronouns properly in complex sentences  (Read 70 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 29, 2017, 07:38:26 AM »

Here’s an intriguing grammar problem presented sometime ago by Forum member Chase:

“I’m having difficulty with the placement of pronouns in complex sentences. In the examples below, do we place the pronouns in the subordinate clause or in the independent clause?

“‘Juan and Maria went to the movies. Juan and Maria finished studying.’
“(A) ‘After they finished studying, Juan and Maria went to the movies.’
“(B) ‘After Juan and Maria finished studying, they went to the movies.’

“‘John did not win the competition. John was disappointed.’
“(A) ‘Much to his disappointment, John did not win the competition.’
“(B) ‘Much to John’s disappointment, he did not win the competition.’

“‘The chicken was delicious. The chicken was spicy.’
“(A) ‘Though the chicken was spicy, it was delicious.’
“(B) ‘Though it was spicy, the chicken was delicious.’”

My reply to Chase:

In complex sentences, whether to position pronouns in the subordinate clause or in the independent clause is largely a stylistic decision based on: (1) the type of composition, whether narrative, expository, argumentative, persuasive, etc.; (2) the position of the sentence in the paragraph, whether lead sentence or a subsequent sentence; and (3) the function of the sentence, whether a thematic sentence, an explication sentence, or a transition sentence.


As a general rule, however, when a narrative or exposition is started by a complex sentence with a front-end subordinate clause, that clause should carry the nouns so they can be clearly identified for the reader first off. The pronouns for those nouns can then be used in the independent (main) clause.

Applying that general rule to your first example, the complex sentence should make the front-end subordinate clause carry the nouns for clarity’s sake: “After Juan and Maria finished studying, they went to the movies. Juan was so tired that he went to sleep as soon as they were seated, but Maria stayed awake until the end of the film…”

A lead sentence that puts the pronouns in the front-end subordinate clause instead undesirably defers identification of its subjects: “After they finished studying, Juan and Maria went to the movies. Juan was so tired that he went to sleep as soon as they were seated, but Maria stayed awake until the end of the film…” This might mislead readers into thinking that “they” refers to persons other than “Juan and Maria.”

On the other hand, when a complex sentence serves as a transition device in a narrative or exposition, putting the pronouns in the front-end subordinate clause may not only be desirable but also functional: “John was so keen on getting the gold medal in the swimming Olympics. He practiced long and hard for it, doing several laps in the pool even past midnight in the run-up to the event. Much to his disappointment, however, John did not win the competition...

In that last sentence above, putting the proper noun “John” in the front-end subordinate clause doesn’t work and sound as well: “John was so keen on getting the gold medal in the swimming Olympics. He practiced long and hard for it, doing several laps in the pool even past midnight in the run-up to the event. Much to John’s disappointment, however, he did not win the competition...

For a stand-alone sentence, though, it’s preferable to put the pronoun in the front-end subordinate clause of your example: “Though the chicken was spicy, it was delicious.” Putting the pronoun in the main clause instead can momentarily puzzle readers as to what the sentence is talking about: “Though it was spicy, the chicken was delicious.”

Ultimately, it’s really the writer’s stylistic decision whether to put the pronouns in the front-end subordinate clause or in the main clause of complex sentences, but the discerning reader should be the best judge of the wisdom of that decision.

This essay, 778th of the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 11, 2012 issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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