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Bad Phrases in Writing 3: Reflexive Pronouns

Today, let’s talk about a particular crime against English: the reflexive pronoun. If you aren’t sure what that means:

The characters find themselves trapped.

Each ally within 10 meters (including yourself) gain a bonus to Ninjaification.

He was besides himself with anguish.

Most of the time, this is just shitty faux-Tolkien[1] writing. Happens often in fantasy prose, and doubly so in adventure writing. It’s clunky and, in most cases, unnecessary.

Let’s look at “The characters find themselves trapped.” You can change it to “The characters are trapped.” The meaning doesn’t change, and just as I said with adverbs, if the meaning doesn’t change kill the construction.

Some would say that “are” is boring compared to “find themselves,” but that’s the thing about editing — the audience sees “are” and not know that it used to have “find themselves.” And if you kill that wording, you leave space for emphasis elsewhere where needed.

That’s important, so let me repeat: When you kill these unnecessary constructions, you leave space in your manuscript for the emphasis that you really want.

With “Each ally within 10 meters (including yourself)” can easily become “You and each ally within 10 meters”. “He was besides himself with anguish.” can become “He was filled with anguish.”

There are times when they’re useful. It can be an emphasis tool, though there are better tools for it that don’t look like awkward writing. And sometimes you cannot remove it without changing the meaning, such as “If you cast a spell on yourself…” But if you can kill the construction and neither the meaning nor the intent changes, do so.

You will thank yourself for it.

– Ryan

[1] This is the opening of its own topic.

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