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Pronouns are an important part of speech because you use them frequently. And you should use pronouns because they serve important purposes. However, you need to make sure when you use pronouns, you’re using them effectively.

The main purpose of a pronoun is “to replace” a noun. The noun a pronoun replaces is called an antecedent. Pronouns, though, need to be coordinated with their antecedents. If they’re not, confusion quickly emerges for readers.

A pronoun is like a backup quarterback. When the starting quarterback is injured, the backup steps in. However, to perform well, the backup must be coordinated and in sync with the entire offense. He must know the plays, the formations, the game plan, etc. In the same way, a pronoun must be coordinated and in sync with its antecedent.

Pronoun Case

Pronouns are complicated, though, because they have various dimensions. One is what’s called “case.” There’s the subjective case (when pronouns are used as subjects in a sentence); the objective case (when they’re used as direct or indirect objects); and the possessive case (when they’re used to show possession). Below are a few examples.

I ate an apple. The pronoun I is used in the subjective case because it’s the subject of this sentence.

Joe gave me an apple. The pronoun me is used in the objective case because it’s the object of this sentence.

(This is why many people remind us to not write, Me and my friend went fishing. Instead, we should write, My friend and I went fishing.)

The apples are theirs. The pronoun theirs is used in the possessive case because theirs shows possession in this sentence. Similar pronouns are yours, its, and ours.

Pronoun Persons

Pronouns also use “persons” as in the first, second, or third person. The first person assumes the writer or speaker is included in the pronoun (I, we, us, ours, we, etc.). The second person assumes the stance of you (you, your, yours). The third person assumes a more objective, distanced stance because the writer or speaker is not present in the pronoun (she, he, it, they, their, them, etc.).

Our focus here is on pronouns and how they agree or refer to their antecedents.

Pronoun Agreement

Pronouns should agree with their antecedents in number, gender, and person. For example, if the antecedent is a singular noun, the pronoun should be singular. If the noun is a gendered noun referring to females, the pronoun also should be gendered appropriately. If a sentence is written in the second person, it should remain in that person and not keep switching between first, second, and third person. Below are some examples.

Correct: The boys walked across the street, but they ran across the field. Since boys is plural and in the third person, the appropriate pronoun is they, which is also in the third person and plural.

Incorrect: One of my friends raised their hand. Since one in this context is a singular pronoun, their is not the appropriate pronoun because, although used in the third person, it’s a plural pronoun.

Revised: One of my friends raised his hand. In this example, a male pronoun was used because my friends and I know the friend I’m referring to is male.

Incorrect: In modern hospitals, a good doctor should always be pleasant to his patients. Since doctor is singular, in the third person, and generally referring to any type of doctor, the appropriate pronoun is not his, which assumes doctors are males. Obviously, this is a stereotype since many women are doctors too.

Revised: In modern hospitals, a good doctor should always be pleasant to his or her patients.

OR

Revised: In modern hospitals, good doctors should always be pleasant to their patients. In this example, we can be more concise by using their and revise the antecedent to the plural since we’re referring to doctors in general.

Pronoun Reference

Pronoun reference means the pronoun clearly refers to its antecedent. Sometimes, we mistakenly use a singular pronoun when a plural one is needed (or vice versa). Or, sometimes we use “ghost antecedents,” which refer to mysterious, unknown antecedents that we assume readers will now. However, ghost antecedents are not clear or obvious. Below are a few examples of pronoun reference.

Correct: John and Mary walked down the road, but they eventually started jogging. In this sentence, they is clearly referring to John and Mary.

Incorrect: John, Mary, and their dog, Butch, walked down the road, but he eventually starting jogging. In this context, we now presumably have two males – John and the dog, Butch – and it’s possible either one could “jog.” So, the pronoun he in this context is ambiguous. Was John or Butch jogging or both?

Incorrect: Sally found a $100 bill in a wallet, so she kept it. In this context, the pronoun it could refer to either the bill or the wallet. It’s not entirely clear what it is referring to or what Sally kept.

Revised: Sally found a $100 bill in a wallet, so she kept both.

OR

Revised: Sally found a $100 bill in a wallet, so she kept the money.

Using pronouns provides many benefits. One is that you can avoid repeating the same nouns over and over again. Instead, you can use a pronoun to avoid that repetition. Similarly, pronouns can help you be more concise. Instead of constantly repeating John and Mary, you can use they at times. However, when using pronouns, you need to make sure they agree with and clearly refer to their antecedents.