If these sentences seem ok, that may be because you may hear people say them in everyday discourse. Still, from the standard of British or American English, the first three sentences contain a pronoun error. The fourth sentence, which until recently would have been considered an error, is correct.
What Are Pronouns?
Pronouns are words that substitute for other nouns. For instance, in the example below Dr. Johansen is a noun and she and her are pronouns:
- Dr. Johansen would prefer that she be addressed using her title, rather than her first name.
Pronouns are also a way to communicate your gender preferences.
- Dr. Johansen would prefer that they be addressed using their title, rather than their first name.
This example uses the singular “they.” For more information, see our article on inclusive language.
Why Do Pronouns Matter?
Pronouns are one of the 9 parts of speech; they are a critical building block for writing meaningful sentences. Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . .
- use pronouns to introduce variety into their sentences, avoid awkward repetition, provide context and emphasis, and clarify relationships between ideas
- use pronouns to express their sense of identify, particular with regards to their gender preference (he/she/they) .
Take a look at the following sample from a student paper, with and without pronouns:
McMurphy’s amiability to all— “wheelers and walkers and vegetables, hands that he has to pick up out of laps—” (23) regardless of their condition, is symbolic of the way Jesus spent time meeting the rich, poor, filthy, sinful, innocent, and all who he encountered, despite their status or loyalty to him. Additionally, by referring to the ward’s group meetings as a “pecking party,” (100) making the men aware of the metaphorical castration they undergo as Nurse Ratched strips them of their individuality, and telling the men that they “can’t let [Nurse Ratched] take over completely—” (100) McMurphy opens the eyes of his inmates (for the first time) to the fact that they are not reaching their full potential, which motivates them to become the men that they truly are.
Now with pronouns removed and replaced with their antecedents:
McMurphy’s amiability to the patients— “wheelers and Walkers and Vegetables, hands that McMurphy has to pick up out of laps—” (23) regardless of the patient’s condition, is symbolic of the way Jesus spent time meeting the rich, poor, filthy, sinful, innocent, and the people Jesus encountered, despite the person’s status or loyalty to Jesus. Additionally, by referring to the ward’s group meetings as a “pecking party,” (100) making the men aware of the metaphorical castration the men undergo as Nurse Ratched strips the men of the men’s individuality, and telling the men that they “can’t let [Nurse Ratched] take over completely—” (100) McMurphy opens the eyes of inmates (for the first time) to the fact that the inmates are not reaching the inmates’ full potential. McMurphy’s actions motivate the inmates to become the men the inmates truly are.
The paragraph without pronouns is repetitive, awkward, and unclear.
What Are the Different Types of Pronouns?
- Personal Pronouns refer to specific individuals or group.
- Examples: I, me, you, they, them, she, her, he, him, it, we, us
- In a sentence: I am going to get coffee. Would you like some?
- Indefinite Pronouns refer to nouns that have not been specifically identified.
- Examples: another, anyone, anybody, anything, each, either, enough, everyone, everything, everybody, other, one, something, much, nobody, few
- In a sentence: Does anyone need anything from the store when I go?
- Possessive pronouns show possession or ownership
- Examples: my, mine, ours, your, yours, his, her, hers, their, theirs
- In a sentence: The last slice of pizza is mine.
- Demonstrative pronouns reference or point to nouns or noun phrases that have already been mentioned.
- Examples: this, that, these, those
- In a sentence: You never listen. That is why I’m always nagging!
- Reflexive pronouns refer back to the subject of the sentence. You use these pronouns when the subject and the object are the same.
- Examples: myself, yourself, himself, herself, oneself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves
- In a sentence: I built this house myself.
- Reciprocal pronouns refer to a reciprocal or mutual relationship.
- Examples: each other, one another
- In a sentence: We need to be kinder to each other.
- Relative pronouns connect relative clauses to independent clauses
- Examples: which that what who whom
- In a sentence: The man who refused to acknowledge his own errors was soon promoted. (In this sentence, “who refused to acknowledge his own errors” is the relative clause—that is, a clause that tells us more about people and things).
- Interrogative pronouns are used in questions
- Examples: who, whom (refer to people); what and which (refer to inanimate objects and animals); who (functions as a subject); whom (functions as an object of preposition or verb); whose (shows possession)
- In a sentence: Which shoes do you prefer?
How Do Pronouns Function in Sentences?
Subject and Object Pronouns
Because pronouns replace nouns, they can function in sentences in the same way. This means that the pronouns listed above can act as both the subject and the object of a sentence.
Subject pronouns act as the subject of a sentence, which means that they
1) are what is doing the action
2) usually appear at the beginning of the sentence.
Some subject pronouns are I, you, he, she, we, they, and who. In the sentence “Gene went to the movies,” Gene is the subject of the sentence and could be replaced with a subject pronoun: “He went to the movies.”
Object pronouns act as the object of the sentence, which means that they
1) are what is receiving the action
2) usually appear at the END of the sentence.
Some object pronouns are: me, you, him, her, us, them, and whom. In the sentence “Gene went to the movies with Xavier,” Xavier is the object of this sentence and could be replaced with an object pronoun: “Gene went to the movies with him.”
Note: Who and whom work the same way—who is always the subject of a sentence and whom is always the object. You can rephrase a question and replace “who” and “whom” with “he” and “him” to help you determine which to use. For example, “Who is going to the movies with whom?” becomes “He is going to the movies with him.”
How Do I Correct Errors in Pronoun Usage?
The three most common errors with pronoun use are
- Mixing up subject and object pronouns
- Unclear pronoun placement (ambiguous antecedent)
- Pronouns that don’t agree with their antecedents
How Do I Correct Errors with Subject and Object Pronouns?
In many cases, it’s easy to choose the correct pronoun because the wrong choice sounds wrong.
Example: Her went to the movies with him.
Most English speakers would recognize that sentence as wrong even without being able to articulate why. But when sentences contain multiple subject and objects, it can be a little trickier to make sure you’re using the right pronoun because the wrong pronoun won’t necessarily sound wrong.
Example: She and Jim went to the movies with Bob and I.
The above example doesn’t sound wrong, but it is. It has a subject pronoun (“I”) acting as an object. A simple solution for determining whether you’ve subject and object pronouns correctly is to read the sentence without the other nouns, and see how the pronouns sound on their own.
Original: She and Jim went to the movies with Bob and I.
With nouns removed: She went to the movies with I.
See? It sounds wrong (because it is!).
How Do I Correct Ambiguous Pronouns?
When using pronouns, it is important to make sure it’s clear what the pronoun is referring to. Pronouns whose antecedents are unclear are often referred to as ambiguous pronouns.
- Example: Drake’s brother wondered whether he had passed his driver’s test.
Who is “he”? It isn’t clear to readers whether this pronoun refers to Drake or Drake’s brother.
- Example: While trying to balance both her computer and notebook, Shelly felt it slip from her hand.
What is “it”? It isn’t clear to readers whether Shelly dropped her computer or her notebook.
- Example: Mr. Ball told his student he was needed in the office.
Who is “he”? It isn’t clear to readers whether Mr. Ball or his student are needed in the office.
Demonstrative pronouns like this, that, and those are also frequently used ambiguously.
- Example: In the digital age, consumers are forced to give away privacy and security in exchange for the ability to participate in digital marketplaces. This is something most of us have learned to accept.
It isn’t clear in this example exactly what “this” refers to. Is it the loss of privacy? The loss of security? The fact that it is a requirement of participation? When using a demonstrative pronoun, especially when it follows a sentence where you’ve introduced complicated information, it’s best to pair that pronoun with a specific reference to the antecedent.
- Example: In the digital age, consumers are forced to give away privacy and security in exchange for the ability to participate in digital marketplaces. This loss of privacy is something most of us have learned to accept.
How Do I Correct Errors in Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement?
An antecedent is the word that a pronoun is replacing. 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.
Pronouns should agree in number with their antecedents. Singular pronouns should follow singular antecedents, and plural pronouns should follow plural antecedents.
Common Singular Pronouns
I, me, mine, myself
she, her, hers, herself
he, him, his, himself
it, its, itself
they, them, theirs, themselves
Common Plural Pronouns
we, us, ours
they, them, theirs, themselves
- Shelly wished that she was more outgoing.
- The mailman his final package that day. He was tired and ready to go home.
As you can see, a pronoun and its antecedent won’t necessarily appear in the same sentence.
- The teachers decided to strike. They conferred with the union to draft a list of demands.
- As if waiting for this precise moment, the neighborhood dogs began to bark the moment he closed his eyes and no amount of shouting convinced them to stop.
Ensuring that your pronouns agree in number with their antecedents is usually pretty straightforward; however, it can be harder to spot errors in complex sentences where the pronoun and antecedent are far removed from each other.
- Example: Mr. Brown has long argued that facilitating students’ access to non-academic resources like food and personal grooming products can improve (his/their) ability to perform well on tests.
It can help to look at an example and ask yourself who the phrase in question must be referring to. In this case, you would ask: Who in this sentence would have the ability to perform well on tests? The answer in this case is the students, and so the correct answer is “their.”
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.). It’s important to maintain consistency in your writing. If you begin an essay writing in the third-person, you need to stay there.
Similar to number and person agreement, pronouns must also correspond to the gender of the antecedent.
- Example: Mr. Green decided it was best to hide his evidence in the pantry.
- Example: Lady Germaine was a bear to deal with in the morning. She was much more tolerable after a little coffee.
Using “They” As a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun
A problem arises when a sentence begins with a singular gender-neutral common noun (like student, official, customer) because English does not have a singular gender-neutral pronoun to pair with these words.
- Example: If a student wishes to be excused from physical education, ________ must submit an appeal to the school board.
The solution is certainly not to bypass the pronoun and repeat the noun (e.g. If a student wishes to be excused from physical education, a student must submit an appeal to the school board).
At one time, students were instructed to default to male singular pronouns in these cases.
- Example: If a student wishes to be excused from physical education, he must submit an appeal to the school board.
Eventually, this evolved to the more inclusive but much clunkier “he or she.”
- Example: If a student wishes to be excused from physical education, he or she must submit an appeal to the school board.
Another option is to change the structure of the sentence to avoid the problem.
- Example: If students wish to be excused from physical education, they must submit an appeal to the school board.
However, making gender neutral singular nouns plural is not always possible. The fact is that the lack of an ungendered singular pronoun is a failure of the English language, and the question of how to deal with it continues to be polarizing. However, more and more English speakers and writers agree that it is acceptable to use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in addition to its traditional use as a gender-neutral plural pronoun.
- Example: If a student wishes to be excused from physical education, they must submit an appeal to the school board.
The same applies when writing about Individuals who identify as non-binary.
- Example: Florence wants to have another look at the house before they make a decision.
An adherence to the rules of grammar shouldn’t ever supersede our humanity. There is no circumstance in which it is appropriate to refer to an individual by a pronoun that doesn’t correspond to their gender identity. In this case, however, the solution is wonderfully simple: Use whichever pronouns the individual has requested.
Indefinite pronouns present a host of thorny agreement issues. Because indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific noun, when they act as the antecedent it can be tricky to determine which pronouns should correspond.
Singular Indefinite Pronouns
Many indefinite pronouns are always treated as singular. Here are some: each, either, anybody, everybody, everyone, no one, nothing, something. In these cases, the corresponding pronoun will always be singular.
But because these pronouns are all gender-neutral, this raises the same issue addressed above: there is no gender-neutral singular personal pronoun to pair with them. Again, the use of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun has become a widely accepted solution.
- Example: Everyone deserves access to clean water to quench their thirst.
The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP allow for the singular “they,” but recommend trying to write around the agreement issue first:
- Example: All people deserve access to clean water to quench their thirst.
Plural Indefinite Pronouns
Some indefinite pronouns are always plural. These are generally easier to spot because in other contexts, they are words that can also serve as adjectives or adverbs that mean more than one. Here are some: both, few/fewer, many, others, several. In these cases, the corresponding pronoun should always be plural.
- Example: Both of my parents decided to cancel their gym memberships.
Indefinite Pronouns That Can Be Singular or Plural
Some indefinite pronouns can be treated as singular OR plural. Here is a complete list of those pronouns:
In the case of these indefinite pronouns, look at the object of the preposition to determine whether its use is singular or plural.
- Some of this footwear smells because I wear it to practice.
- Footwear = singular object of the preposition
- Some of these shoes smell because I wear them to practice.
- Shoes = plural object of the preposition
Agreement with indefinite pronouns that can be singular or plural is particularly challenging because we typically ignore the object of the preposition when making choices about agreement. The treatment of all, any, none, most, more, and some represents an exception to that rule.
Note: This exception also applies when choosing a verb that agrees in number to all, any, most more and some:
All of your work is excellent.
All of the farmers are planting winter wheat.
Collective nouns (nouns that identify a group like class, team, and committee) also get special treatment when it comes to agreement.
Collective nouns are treated as plural when each member of the group is acting independently.
- Example: Before the match began, the team took their places on the field.
Each team member is acting independently and going to a different place. There are many actions taking place, so the pronoun is plural.
Collective nouns are treated as singular when the group is acting in unison.
- Example: The committee agreed to spend its surplus budget on yo-yos.
The committee is completing a single action as a group, so the pronoun is singular.
Named businesses, schools, and organizations are always treated as singular.
- Example: Southwest High School takes great pride in the service projects of its students.
- Neither the teachers nor the principal neglected (his/their) duties.
- Skydivers are taught that (you/they) should check their parachutes before even getting on a plane.
- The school board will present (its/their) proposed budget at the next meeting.
- Both Cheryl and Denise will bring (her/their) supplies.
- Some of the participants declined to sign (his or her/their) waivers.