3.3 Pronouns

Preview

This section of Ch. 3 will cover the following topics:

  • a pronoun’s job
  • fixing common pronoun problems

are more complicated than nouns, but start by noticing the word “pronoun” has the word “noun” embedded in it. That gives us a hint that they are connected.

What Is a Pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun to avoid repetition. Here is an example of how pronouns work:

Maria threw the boomerang and it came back to her. (“it” and “her” are pronouns)

If there were no pronouns, writing and speaking would be tedious and repetitive. Without pronouns, the above sentence would have to be written like this:

Maria threw the boomerang and the boomerang came back to Maria.

The noun that is being replaced by the pronoun is called its . “Maria” is the antecedent of “her” and “boomerang” is the antecedent of “it.”

Compared to nouns, there are very few pronouns.  Read the following list to get a sense of which words are pronouns:

all she no one they
another her nothing this
any hers one those
anyone herself our us
anybody I ours you
anything it ourselves your
both its several yours
each itself some yourself
either many somebody yourselves
everybody me someone we
everyone my something what
everything myself that which
few mine their whichever
he most theirs who
him neither them whom
himself nobody themselves whoever
his none these whomever

Pronouns can be divided into lots of different types: personal, possessive, reflexive, intensive, indefinite, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, etc. They do slightly different things, but they all do the same basic job: they replace nouns to avoid repetition.

Exercise 1

Copy these sentences into your notebook, adding the correct pronoun. Then draw an arrow from the pronoun to the noun (the antecedent) the pronoun replaces.

  1. In the current economy, workers don’t want to waste ____________ money.
  2. If my sister goes to medical school, ____________ must be prepared for the long hours.
  3. The plumbing crew did ____________ best to repair the broken pipes.
  4. If the guy who drives the cab is rude, try giving ____________ a smile in return.
  5. My family has faults, but I still love ____________.
  6. The commencement speaker said students have an opportunity to improve ____________ lives.
  7. Aunt Norma was a talented gardener and ____________ worked in the yard nearly every day.
  8. My computer is nearly ten years old. ____________ really needs to be replaced.

Correcting Pronoun Errors

Pronoun errors are the second most common error in college writing (comma errors are #1), so it is worth your time to study pronouns and better understand how to use them.

The three most common pronoun errors are the following:

  • unclear pronoun reference
  • lack of noun/pronoun agreement
  • shifts in person

Error #1: Unclear Pronoun Reference

If we don’t understand which noun the pronoun has replaced, that is called an unclear pronoun reference. For example:

Before syncing my phone with my laptop, I deleted everything on it. (What does the pronoun “it” refer to? The phone or the laptop? This is an example of an unclear pronoun reference.)

A clearer explanation would be this:

I deleted everything on my phone before syncing it with my laptop. (Now “it” clearly refers to the phone.)

Error #2: Lack of Noun/Pronoun Agreement

Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns they refer to. If the noun is singular, the pronoun replacing it should also be singular. If the noun is plural, the pronoun replacing it must also be plural. For example:

Tip

People in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities often use the pronoun “they” to refer to one person. In the past, we would not say, “Mason has a new cat because they love cats.” Traditional grammar rules required a singular pronoun when referring to a singular noun. But respect for an individual’s identity is an important part of the evolution of language.

Also, we should not assume which pronoun a person uses. It is okay to politely ask people their pronoun.

The parrot (singular) sat on its (singular) perch.

The parrots (plural) sat on their (plural) perches.

When referring to several people, it can be tempting to avoid sexist language by using both male and female pronouns rather than defaulting to male. For example:

Sexist: An actor must share his emotions.

Not sexist, but awkward: An actor must share her or his emotions.

A better way to fix the problem is to switch to a plural noun and pronoun. For example:

Actors must share their emotions.

This works because although many singular pronouns in English reflect a specific gender (he, she, him, her), most plural pronouns do not (they, them, their, we, us).

Error #3: Shifts in Person

To understand what “person” means, imagine a conversation between three people. The first person would speak using “I.” That person would talk to a second person using “you.” When they talk about a third person, they use “he,” “she” or “they.”

  • First person pronouns: I, me, mine, we, us, ours
  • Second person pronouns: you, yours
  • Third person pronouns: he, him, his, she, her, they, them, theirs, one, anyone, it, its

When using pronouns, avoid incorrectly mixing first, second, and third person: “shifts in person.” For example:

Tip

Avoid second person (“you”) in college writing. It is too casual. Use first person (“I”) or third person “(“she,” “he,” “them”) instead.

With our delivery service, customers can pay for their groceries when ordering or when you receive them. (“Customers” is third person, so “you,” which is second person, is a shift in person.)

Here is how the sentence should read:

With our delivery service, customers can pay when they order or when they receive the groceries.”

Three Quick Pronoun Rules

  • The words “who,” “whom,” and “whose” refer only to people. The word “which” refers to things. The word “that” can refer to people or things. Never write “I have a dog who bites.”
  • To decide whether to use “me” or “I,” take out the other person’s name and see which sounds right: “The teacher looked at Maria and I.” or “The teacher looked at Maria and me.”
  • Never put a pronoun directly after a noun. For example: “Christine she went to work earlier than usual.” Delete either the pronoun “she” or the noun “Christine.”

Graphic Materials

To review pronouns, watch this great video:

Exercise 2

In your notebook, write the following sentences, correcting any pronoun errors.

  1. The eighth grade students they were behaving mysteriously.
  2. Twyla and me went to the circus on Friday.
  3. The instructor gave Marilyn her notes.
  4. A student who goes to the play audition should bring his own lunch.
  5. Juan is a man that has high standards.
  6. We are all responsible for what you do as adults.
  7. My calendar is so full of meetings they are hard to read.
  8. A gardener is only successful if he or she has good soil.

Takeaways

  • A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun to avoid repetition.
  • Pronoun errors are very common and include unclear pronoun reference, noun/pronoun agreement problems, and shifts in person.

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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.