Pronouns are words that replace nouns. People use pronouns to avoid repeating the same noun over and over again (which can become cumbersome). Thus, pronouns allow for a more interesting and concise paper as long as pronouns and antecedents (i.e., the word pronoun refers to) agree in person, number, and gender.
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.
In business and academic contexts, readers do not want to have to play guessing games with your writing to figure out your main points and arguments, and readers should not have to work hard to figure out what you mean. While much of the success of a text has to do with substantive content, having an insightful thesis or research question that is well supported with a cogent synthesis of evidence or sources with appropriate transitions and a logical progression, style, mechanics, and grammar should not be overlooked.
Incorrect pronoun usage is a common source of ambiguity and confusion in both academic and workplace writing. For example, consider this example:
If an engineering student fails the midterm, they have to receive an A on the final for a passing grade.
Here the pronoun and antecedent in the sentence do not agree. Let’s take a closer look. Careful proofreading of this sentence reveals that “an engineering student” is singular; therefore, the pronoun they should be replaced with he or she in the above sentence.
Non-native English Speakers & Ambiguous Pronouns
Non-native English speakers should be particularly aware of the possibility for ambiguous pronouns, since many other languages have more or different pronouns, denoting differences in gender and case. Compare a list of the pronouns used in your native language with a list of the pronouns used in English: any instances when multiple pronouns in your native language share one pronoun in English, or when one pronoun in your native language is divided into multiple pronouns in English, are especially likely to result in misunderstanding.
|Personal Pronouns||I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, them|
|Demonstrative Pronouns||this, that, these, those|
|Possessive Pronouns||mine, ours, yours, his, hers, theirs|
|Interrogative Pronouns||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 (show possession)|
|Reflexive Pronouns||myself, yourself, himself, herself, oneself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.|
|Reciprocal Pronouns||each other, one another|
|Indefinite Pronouns||another, anyone, anybody, anything, each, either, enough, everyone, everything, everybody, other, one, something, much, nobody, few, such…|
|Relative Pronouns||who, whom, which|
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pronouns and Antecedents Must Agree in Number
Pronouns and Antecedents Must Agree in Gender
In addition to making sure that pronouns and their antecedents agree in number, you should ensure that the pronouns and their antecedents agree in gender as well.
Since Uncle Henry is not a woman, the pronoun her is not in agreement with the antecedent. Therefore, the her must be changed to his.
You may be asking, how do you approach pronouns that are not gendered, such as the gender-neutral pronoun “it”? For example: When Joey set it on the counter, the glass fell over. This example might be a little bit trickier as the sentence construction begins with a subordinate adverbial clause, “When Joey set it on the counter,” and so we might wonder, where is the antecedent that comes before (and refers to) the pronoun “it”? If the sentence were constructed this way—the glass fell over when Joey set it on the counter—then we could easily see that the pronoun it refers to the antecedent glass. Whether the sentence is a simple construction or is more complex (for instance, beginning with a dependent clause), the glass is what was set on the counter and what fell over. We can see that the gender-neutral pronoun it and the antecedent glass agree.
Things begin to get more complex when we’re dealing with indefinite pronouns, which are pronouns that do not refer to a specific thing or person. Anybody, everybody, everything, somebody, no one, etc., all seem to be plural, but they actually are singular. However, there are also plural indefinite pronouns like some and both.
The first sentence is incorrect because everybody really equates to every person, which is singular; thus, the indefinite pronoun everybody requires a singular pronoun, or pronouns to be gender sensitive. For more about indefinite pronouns and subject-pronoun agreement, listen to Grammar Girl’s podcast (linked below).
Examples of collective nouns include words such as team, jury, audience, and class. These collective nouns typically refer to a class or group. Identifying collective nouns as singular or plural can be tricky as the singularity or plurality depends on how the collective noun functions. An antecedent can either refer to the pronoun as a single unit or the different parts of the whole.
For example: The finance committee will present its findings tomorrow at the Marshall Center.
This sentence shows the committee being treated as a single unit/group. On the other hand, The finance committee could not agree on their findings reflects the idea that the committee is made up of members(plural) who, in this case, are not presenting findings as a collective unit/group. This why you will see the term audience (used frequently throughout this textbook) with either plural or singular pronouns following or preceding it: the sentence can either be reflecting the collectivity of the group (the audience—singular) or the individuality of its members (the audience [members]—plural).
Compound antecedents are joined by the conjunction and and require pronouns to be plural.
For example: My dad and his older brother are going to their family reunion next week. (Both are going to their family reunion.)
However, when the word each or every appear before a compound antecedent, the pronoun needs to be singular. For example: Every athlete or musician has his or her own method of training. (Consider that each or every means each individual athlete or each individual musician has his or her own method of training. Or, every single athlete or every single musician has his or her method of training.)
There will be times when and will not be used to join a compound antecedent; rather, nor or or will be used. When this occurs, the pronoun must agree in number with the closest antecedent.
For example: Neither Joseph nor his brothers got their job application in on time.
Because brothers is a plural noun and is the antecedent that is closest to the pronoun nor, the pronoun that follows their needs to be plural as well.
If the compound antecedents were reversed in this sentence, we the sentence would (correctly) be structured like this: Neither Joseph’s brothers nor Joseph got his application in on time.
Joseph (a singular noun) is the antecedent that is closest to the pronoun nor, so the pronoun that follows (his) needs to be singular as well. For more about the correct usage of “neither/nor,” listen to the Grammar Girl podcast (linked below).
There are a couple of additional things to keep in mind when checking for issues with pronoun references. Indefinite pronouns like everyone or somebody could be either male or female, but many writers assume the pronoun to be masculine, which excludes females. Readers may consider this position to be sexist, so you’ll want to consider your audience when you’re deciding on pronoun use when indefinite pronouns function as antecedents. Also, keep in mind that ambiguous pronoun usage, which occurs when a pronoun can have more than one antecedent, confuses readers.
For example: Christopher visited Andrew after his graduation.
Here, we are unsure of who his is referring to: Whose graduation was it—Christopher’s graduation or Andrew’s graduation? In such an instance, it’s necessary to restructure the sentence (After his graduation, Christopher visited Andrew) for the sake of clarity, because repeating the noun would make the sentence awkward (Christopher visited Andrew after Christopher’s graduation).
Pronoun-antecedent disagreement is an easy mistake to make, but fortunately, it is quite easy to remedy. Remember that spell check and grammar check functions in your word processor probably will not catch all the errors in a paper. Only by identifying the grammatical mistakes that you have a tendency to make and then carefully proofreading with those issues in mind will you ensure a polished final product.
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.
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.
Unclear Pronouns and Antecedents
Pronouns can be unclear for two reasons: multiple possible antecedents that a single pronoun could refer to or a pronoun is used in the absence of any explicit antecedent.
Unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents
The first and simplest source of unclear antecedents is ambiguity due to multiple possible antecedents. In the example given in the preceding sub-section, “George Washington” is the obvious antecedent of “he.” This antecedent becomes unclear, however, when there are multiple possible nouns that “he” could refer to:
President George Washington and his vice president, John Adams, had a difficult relationship, which he wrote about in letters to friends.
In this sentence, “he” could refer to either Washington or Adams, making the meaning unclear to readers.
Or, for another example:
American students differ from European students in that they expect more personalized attention.
Here, “they” could refer to either American students or European students. Unless readers are familiar with these two groups and their behavior, they will not know the intended meaning.
How might you address the pronoun reference problems that occur throughout your essay?
Thomas was always unprepared for class. It made his teacher increasingly mad.
Thomas was always unprepared for class. This made his teacher increasingly mad.
The highlighted words represent vague pronouns because a reader cannot tell to which noun the pronoun in each example is referring. By definition, pronouns, which take the place of a noun, cannot refer to an idea expressed in an entire sentence or statement; instead, a pronoun must refer back to a specific noun.