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Redundancies: Reflexive Pronouns Used to Clarify Internalized Communication

Posted by CW64 on January 4, 2012

One of the most common mistakes I encounter when proofreading manuscripts is the inclusion of self-reference as the object to internal dialogue. Although the indication of such a tag is true, signifying the thinker as the object within the text is redundant.

Take for example the following sentence:

How I wish I were going to Hawaii this coming summer, Jack thought to himself.

In this example, the narrative speaks in the third person as it describes what Jack is thinking with regard to a desire he has. Since his dialogue is internalized, he is the only one who knows of it, so the identity of the object receiver goes without saying.

Let me put it this way: Can a person ever ‘think’ to anyone other than oneself? No, not unless she or he is psychic, but that is beside the point, since most people do not possess this proclivity, and the reader would have to know about that personality trait beforehand. In any case, due to the obvious fact that a thinker’s audience is always oneself, the reflexive pronoun is overkill; the sentence Jack thought to himself is redundant because he can only think to himself in the first place, and so the “to himself” modifier is both grammatically incorrect and unnecessary.

This rule is so simple, yet it slips by so many people, among them writers. This both annoys and saddens me. Why do people think and write this way?

One added note: This involves any intransitive verb that suggests internalization: ‘thought,’ ‘contemplate,’ ‘wonder,’ ‘consider,’ ‘ponder’ . . . The notion of private dialogue (i.e. thoughts) collectively encompasses all of these and other like words.

The simple rule when expressing internal dialogue is this:

Subject + intransitive verb

That is it.

In other words: “Jack thought” is perfect; this says it all. No indication of receiver needs to be added because it is implied, much like the ‘you’ subject in questions.

This, however, is different than openly talking to oneself:

“Damn, why couldn’t you have left well enough alone?” Jill mumbled to herself on her way home from her ex-boyfriend’s house.

Since verbalized comments can be directed toward anybody, the inclusion of the personal pronoun here is both acceptable and necessary to indicate to the audience the idea that Jill is, in fact, speaking to herself and not to someone else. On the other hand, one can argue that if the audience knows beforehand that Jill is alone, the comment is implicitly self-directed. This is why the context of the scene is important for dialogue clarity.

A similar point can be made regarding laughing and smiling, both of which are open, externalized expressions of thought and feeling. The reflexive pronoun is appropriate here as well. The sentence Jill smiled is different than Jill smiled to herself because the two have distinct implications: The former suggests that she is smiling openly and/or outwardly; the latter indicates discretion with regard to a smile she has no intention of sharing with others in the scene. That being the case, the reflexive pronoun is used only in the second example. This rationale applies to laughing for exactly the same reason.

Of course, the “to oneself” modifier is sometimes unnecessary to indicate a private laugh. The simple use of other words or cues does the job nicely: Jill laughed under her breath. This sentence suggests that Jill is keeping the laugh to herself. Alternate words or phrases apply equally to all forms of expression, internal or external. This is where writers exercise creativity.

This is a simple rule that marks the difference between the seasoned writer and amateur. Although clarity is important in writing, nonsensical redundancies and unnecessary modifiers annoy readers who quickly lose confidence in the writer and that writer’s abilities. As a matter of fact, overkill in written expression destroys the communicative process for both writer and reader because it quite often impedes clarity by creating ambiguous or unintended references.

A writer should NEVER underestimate the reader’s intelligence; the latter is quite capable of deductive reasoning. One should remember that a writer can convey more by saying less, IF she or he chooses the right words or phrases to use in the first place.

Coming Soon: more on redundancies…

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4 Responses to “Redundancies: Reflexive Pronouns Used to Clarify Internalized Communication”

  1. Imdb said

    To the stage and written well, tyvm for that info.

  2. Wonderful blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Many thanks
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    • CW64 said

      Hello, and thanks for the comment. I am glad you found my blog useful.

      As for Yahoo News, make sure that you employ ample use of keywords and phrases. Search engines draw on the inclusion of particular terms when it comes to forming lists. The more frequently an article contains these terms, the better chance it has to show up on a list. For example, an article on writing will have a better chance of being found and read if it contains a high count of the word “writing.” Other related words and terms will help as well, such as “grammar,” “write,” ‘writer,” “fiction,” “freelancing,” “creative expressions,” etc. Be careful not to ‘overload’ your articles with these words, however; an excess of such key terms will reduce the fluidity of expression and diminish the quality of your articles. Also–and this is of utmost importance–Google has instigated new rules regarding keyword articles by insisting that 1% density is adequate for search engine readability (‘Density’ refers to the number of times a word is incorporated into the body of a text. In the case of 1%, the keyword count is determined by the first number in the overall word count of the article. For example, if the article has 500 words total, a 1% density would equate to five (5) keywords in all. I will write more on this later). As a matter of fact, these rules are strict, and anyone who attempts excessively high density (a process called “stuffing”) will be severely reprimanded for doing so. Again, please be careful.

      Another tip for inclusion on Yahoo! News lists is to conduct some research to see which topics are consistently popular, and then follow up by writing articles falling into any of these “hot button” areas.

      Good luck.

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