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Every time I write and read the 'she's and the 'he's especially in the same paragraph it confuses me and that worries me if the readers will get confused.

Obviously through different actions and dialogues peppered through one would be able to differentiate the two same gendered characters from each other but it gets tiring to keep on writing

'The detective' or some other adjective describing the character or repeating their names.

How can I distinguish the two different 'she's and 'him's?

Say:

"There isn't much we can do unless you tell us why you were there." The cop tells the woman.

The woman nervously taps her fingers on her arms and answers her question.

From context alone you'd know the second 'her' in that last stence would be the cop. But as the paragraph gets longer sometimes the 'she's and 'her's gets confused.

Or sometimes in just this single sentence from a piece of writing I did, you could misinterpret the 'his personal study' to be either Jonathan's or the unnamed 'he':

He looks down at the stone mask lying innocuously on Jonathan's table in his study and smiles.

I mean with context you could maybe guess the study is also Jonathan's but it could also possibly be the unknown 'he's study or it could be a shared study.

What I want to convey is that this is Jonathan's study and also his table and that the 'he' is intruding. But as they're both male how would I suggest that without being too wordy?

I guess I could say instead -

"He looks down at the stone mask lying innocuously on Jonathan's table in the other man's study and smiles.

or even repeat his name again. Jonathan's study.

But is there another way to distinguish between the 'she's and 'he's in the writing? When I read others' works, I don't ever seem to notice if it's oddly placed or could be misinterpreted because I guess the mind just assumes but how can I distinctly differentiate them is my question without having to overtly rely on repeating 'the other man' or 'the detective' or 'the younger woman' etc ?

Sorry for the ramble. I just keep on noticing this issue in my writing and it really bothers me and I'm hoping others have some good suggestions/advice on how to well - reduce this issue of mine in my writing?

  • 1
    Hi CheckersBoard, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for more information. – linksassin Nov 21 at 5:35
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    As an aside, if you have a quoted sentence followed by a dialogue tag, make sure to end the quoted sentence with a comma and start the dialogue tag with a lowercase letter. See: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/47221/… – Tanner Swett Nov 21 at 14:35
  • thanks @linksassin I just checked it out :) – CheckersBoard Nov 21 at 22:27
  • @TannerSwett right, I'm pretty rusty - just started getting back into writing after a long hiatus - thanks for the refresher! – CheckersBoard Nov 21 at 22:29
  • “From context alone you'd know the second 'her' in that last stence would be the cop.” — Really? Last sentence, with “her” bolded: “The woman nervously taps her fingers on her arms and answers her question." I would have expected the woman to tap her fingers on her own arms, not on the cop's arms. – celtschk Dec 2 at 11:11
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You just need to get a better grasp on when using context is enough and when it isn't.

Quoting from your examples:

"There isn't much we can do unless you tell us why you were there." The cop tells the woman.

The woman nervously taps her fingers on her arms and answers her question.

Here context is not enough. Apart from "her" being repeated, you've created a sentence where the first two are referring to the woman answering; one would expect the last one to do the same. Compare this on how repetition can be used as a figure of speech:

He missed her so much. Her smile. Her laugh. Her eyes. Her scent.

Here the adjectives are all referring to the same female person that the subject misses.

But then again, in your example, you don't need to clarify that the question is "the female cop's". It's the only question being asked, so you could just say..

...taps her fingers on her arms and answers the question.

Or, if there were other question being asked,

...taps her fingers on her arms and answers the last question.

As a rule of thumb, I'd use a possessive adjective only when it's important to underline the ownership of something. In this case, I'm not sure it's so much of an issue, seeing that "the female cop" doesn't seem to be a named character.

But context can be enough, and that's should be the case in your second example:

He looks down at the stone mask lying innocuously on Jonathan's table in his study and smiles.

Unless the subject in this sentence has somehow moved Jonathan's table from Jonathan's place to his study (and if he did, you should have showed it beforehand), it's implied that Jonathan's table will be in Jonathan's study.

  • In that specific example, perhaps you could also say "..taps her fingers on her arms and answers the officer's question." – BruceWayne Nov 21 at 20:19
  • Thanks, I guess I'll just have to keep writing and make sure there's enough context clues to separate them – CheckersBoard Nov 21 at 22:21
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Personnally I organize my writing in this way :

"I'm against this ! told John, protesting vividly. He stood up from his seat.

- You cannot stop us from taking this decision !" replied Steve. He stood up too.

Afterwards, you can continue to use "he/his" if you continue to talk about Steve. Otherwise you need to specify that John is doing something.

That seems to me the simplest and clearest way to describe things.

Good luck to you !

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It can often help to clearly separate who you're talking about. If you have different genders in conversation, it's easier, but you'll just have to find another separator for other situations. Like this:

Woman_1 said something.

Woman_2 thought about it, tapped her fingers and the side of her arm, and answered.

"But it's not like this, it's like that!"

"I feel it's like this, though"

She looked at her in deep thought.

Who looked at who in thought? It's simple - you switch the initiative every line. Woman_1 was doing things in lines 1, 3, and 5, while Woman_2 was doing things in lines 2 and 4. Therefore, It's Woman_1 looking at Woman_2, because it's her turn to do something.

Of course, if a sequence gets longer, then you'll have to restate names, or identifiers. ("The taller woman answered..." - which of course requires the reader to know whose taller. You'll generally have better differences than length, though.)

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