Pronoun Use

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun or a noun phrase; we generally use this part of speech to avoid repetition. While there are many kinds of pronouns—for example, personal pronouns, relative pronouns, and reflexive pronouns—in this section, we will discuss only personal pronouns, because they represent the majority of the pronoun-related problems most students face in their writing.

English personal pronouns agree in number, gender, and case (i.e., their function in a sentence, as a subject, direct object, or indirect object, etc.) with the noun they substitute. For example, the pronoun "he" generally replaces a masculine, singular noun functioning as a subject (its corresponding object case is "him"), while the pronoun "she" replaces a feminine, singular pronoun functioning as a subject (its corresponding object case is "her").

The following chart outlines English personal pronouns. In the last row, you'll find a pronoun test to help you determine the case of any pronoun. Place the pronoun in the space provided. If the sentence reads correctly, then you have confirmed the pronoun's case.

  Subject Pronouns Object Pronouns Possessive Adjectives Possessive Pronouns Reflexive Pronouns
1st person, sing I me my mine myself
2nd person, sing you you your yours yourself
3rd person (masc, sing) he him his his himself
3rd person (fem, sing) she her her hers herself
3rd person (neut, sing) it it its - itself
1st person (pl) we us our ours ourselves
2nd person (pl) you you your yours yourselves
3rd person (pl) they them their theirs themselves
Pronoun test ___ will be there. I will kick ___ I call ___ name. That book is ___. (subj) love(s) (reflx).

Common problems related to pronouns

1. Unclear antecedent

Since a pronoun is used in place of a noun, there should always be a noun or a noun phrase (which we call the antecedent) to which it corresponds. Sometimes, however, and in cases where several personal pronouns are in use in a sentence, it may be unclear to the reader to which antecedent a pronoun refers. For example:

The problem in Example 1.1 is that the antecedent pronoun "it" can be either "my car" or "the car in front of me," and the reader cannot be sure which noun is the real antecedent. The solution in this case is to repeat the antecedent, for example, "When I crashed my car…, my car was totally wrecked."

While not as confusing as Example 1.1, Example 1.2 would benefit from a more precise antecedent. So while "they" logically refers to the government officers as a whole, grammatically, "they" can refer to other groups of people as well. There are, in other words, other causes, groups, and factors that prevent immigrants from coming here.

In Example 1.3, the reader should have no difficulty figuring out that the writer meant the antecedent of "he" to be Shakespeare, even though the noun phrase says "Shakespeare's sonnets." A better choice in this case would be to substitute "they" for "he." The revised sentence would then read: "In his sonnets, Shakespeare uses a lot of metaphors."

Finally, in Example 1.4, even though most readers would know that "that" refers to what I just found out, there's no clear or direct antecedent for the pronoun "that," which leaves the reader wondering, Is it "the fact that I just found out that my dog has cancer" (the news I just received) or is it just "the cancer" (not just a cold or loss of appetite) that makes me worried? In this case, the reference is too broad. A more precise way to phrase this sentence might read: "I just found out that my dog has cancer. The news has me worried to death."

2. Agreement issues

Pronouns should agree with their antecedents in number, gender, and case. It's not uncommon, however, to see the following errors:

In each pair of words above, there is an agreement error. In 2.1, "everyone" should be treated as singular, so "their" isn't accurate in this case because it's a plural pronoun. Although "everyone" seems like it should be plural, its number is always treated as singular. In 2.2, we see the same kind of agreement error; "everybody" should be treated as singular. In 2.3 and 2.4 "a person" and "someone" are singular, and therefore the use of "they" to replace both words is incorrect. In 2.5 and 2.6, "the student" and "every writer" here refer to the whole population of students or writers, and although logically there are many students in a class and although "every writer" means "all writers," each noun phrase is singular (notice the verb "is required" and "has to be" as opposed to "are required" and "have to be").

Opting for "he or she" in place of "they" in cases where the antecedent is everyone or everybody isn't always the most effective way to make pronouns and their antecedents agree, however. Sometimes a better revision involves recasting your sentence to avoid the awkwardness of "he or she." With this in mind, the previous sentences could be rewritten as follows:

There are many ways to avoid the agreement problem, and if using "he or she" sounds repetitive or awkward, consider not using these pronouns at all, as in the Example 2.1b. Alternatively, you can use "all" as in 2.2b, or the passive voice as in the second revision in 2.3b. Click here for more on Passive Voice. Another way to make a concise revision is to use a participle modifier, as in 2.6b, where we've replaced the subordinate clause ("when they choose pronouns") with a participle clause. We also haven't created a dangling modifier because the implicit subject of the clause is still the same as it was in the original sentence. Click here for more on dangling modifiers. Finally, the writer simply changes the singular noun to plural to avoid an agreement problem in 2.5b.

3. "It's" vs. "Its"

Another common pronoun error is the its/it's construction. To express possession, use "its" (without an apostrophe), as in "My dog likes to play with its toys." The contraction "it's" (with an apostrophe), on the other hand, means "it is" or it has," as in "it's been a long time." Using contractions in your writing might affect the overall tone of your paper, however, so consider whether your audience requires a more formal tone. Click here for more on "tone."

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