This section of Ch. 3 will cover the following topics:
- a pronoun’s job
- fixing common pronoun problems
are more complicated than nouns and they cause more trouble. To master pronouns, start by noticing the word “pronoun” has the word “noun” embedded in it. That gives us a hint that they are related, and you already know what a noun is.
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. The above sentence would 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. Following is a pretty complete list. Read through it to get familiar with the kind of words that work as pronouns.
Pronouns can be divided into lots of different types: personal, possessive, reflexive, intensive, indefinite, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, etc. Don’t let that overwhelm you. They do slightly different things, but they all have the same basic job: they replace nouns to avoid repetition.
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 these:
- 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 to which they refer. If the noun is singular, the pronoun replacing it should also be singular. If the noun is plural, the pronoun replacing it must be plural. For example:
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.
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. That is called “shifts in person.” For example:
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 Guidelines
- 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 if the sentence sounds right: “The teacher looked at
Maria andI.” sounds wrong. “The teacher looked at Maria andme.” is correct.
- 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.”
Type up the following sentences, correcting any pronoun confusion errors. Don’t guess. Refer to the information above to figure out the correct answer.
- The children they were behaving badly.
- Natalie and me went shopping on Friday.
- The teacher gave Makayla her notes.
- Any actor attending the play audition should bring his own lunch.
- Kevin is a man which has high standards.
- An employee is only successful if he or she works hard.
To review pronouns, watch this great cartoon video:
Go back to the following sentences from Ex. 1 in Ch. 3.1.
- Toby studies film at the University of New Mexico.
- I spend time in the garden because it is so peaceful.
- Blues guitar is my very favorite music.
- Rats! The noisiest dog on our block just had puppies.
- John lives in Oregon now, but he previously lived in California, Alaska, Texas, and Massachusetts.
You have marked the nouns by highlighting them in yellow. If you made any errors previously, correct them now.
Then, look for any words in the sentences that are pronouns. Highlight them in orange. Notice that, unlike nouns, some sentences will have pronouns and some won’t.
- 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.
a word used in place of a noun
a word the pronoun refers to