Pronouns represent nouns, and there are eight types of pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, possessive, reciprocal, relative, and reflexive. That's a lot to remember. The following table gives some examples of each type, as well as the pronoun functions as a subject, object, or both (some pronouns can only be used as a subject or an object).
Table 12.11.1 -- Pronoun Types
|Personal pronouns||he, she, they||him, her, them|
|Demonstrative pronouns||this, these||them|
|Interrogative pronouns||who, which|
|Indefinite pronouns||none, several, some|
|Possessive pronouns||his, your, whose|
|Reciprocal pronouns||each other, one another|
|Relative pronouns||which, where, that, who, whose,||whom|
|Reflexive pronouns||itself, himself, yourself|
A pronoun is a word that can be used in place of the noun. We use pronouns so we do not have to repeat words. For example, imagine writing the following sentence: Afrah put her scarf on because Afrah was cold. The sentence sounds a bit strange because Afrah is named twice; however, if you use a pronoun, the sentence will be shorter and less repetitive. You might rewrite the sentence to something similar to the following: Afrah put her scarf on because she was cold. She refers to Afrah, so you do not have to write the name twice.
If there were no pronouns, all types of writing would be quite tedious to read. We would soon be frustrated by reading sentences like Bob said that Bob was tired or Christina told the class that Christina received an A. Pronouns help a writer avoid constant repetition. Knowing just how pronouns work is an important aspect of clear and concise writing.
A pronoun is a word that takes the place of (or refers back to) a noun or another pronoun. The word or words a pronoun refers to is called the antecedent of the pronoun.
1. Lani complained that she was exhausted.
- She refers to Lani.
- Lani is the antecedent of she.
2. Jeremy left the party early, so I did not see him until Monday at work.
- Him refers to Jeremy.
- Jeremy is the antecedent of him.
3. Crina and Rosalie have been best friends ever since they were freshman in high school.
- They refers to Crina and Rosalie.
- Crina and Rosalie is the antecedent of they.
Pronoun agreement errors occur when the pronoun and the antecedent do not match or agree with each other. There are several types of pronoun agreement.
Agreement in Number
If the pronoun takes the place of or refers to a singular noun, the pronoun should also be singular; however, "they" is acceptable to refer to a person of undetermined or unassumed gender.*
Incorrect: The man (sing.) could not pick up his dry cleaning because they (plur.) didn't have a receipt.
Correct: The man (sing.) could not pick up his try cleaning because he (sing.) did not have a receipt.
Correct: If students (plur.) want to return a book to the bookstore, they (plur.) must have a receipt.
*One way to get around problems with agreement in number is to pluralize the antecedent (if possible) and use "they" as the pronoun.
Table 12.11.2 -- Agreement in Person
|Singular Pronouns||Plural Pronouns|
|First Person||I||me||my (mine)||we||us||our (ours)|
|Second Person||you||you||your (yours)||you||you||your (your)|
|Third Person||he, she, it||him, her, it||his, her, its||they||them||their (theirs)|
If you use a consistent person, your reader is less likely to be confused.
Incorrect: When a person (3rd) goes to a restaurant, you (2nd) should leave a tip.
Correct: When a person (3rd) goes to a restaurant, he or she (3rd) should leave a tip.
Correct: When we (1st) go to a restaurant, I should (1st) should leave a tip.
Edit the following paragraph by correcting pronoun agreement errors in number and person.
Over spring break I visited my older cousin, Diana, and they took me to a butterfly exhibit at a museum. Diana and I have been close ever since she was young. Our mothers are twin sisters, and she is inseparable! Diana knows how much I love butterflies, so it was their special present to me. I have a soft spot for caterpillars too. I love them because something about the way it transforms is so interesting to me. One summer my grandmother gave me a butterfly growing kit, and you got to see the entire life cycle of five Painted Lady butterflies. I even got to set it free. So when my cousin said they wanted to take me to the butterfly exhibit, I was really excited!
Indefinite Pronouns and Agreement
Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person or thing and are usually singular. Note that a pronoun that refers to an indefinite singular pronoun should also be singular. The following are some common indefinite pronouns.
Table 12.11.3 -- Common Indefinite Pronouns
Collective Noun Agreement
Collective nouns (also known as noncount nouns -- see Chapter 12.8) are usually considered singular. Look over the following examples of collective nouns.
Table 12.11.4 -- Common Collective Nouns
Incorrect: Lara’s company (sing.) will have their (plur.) annual picnic next week.
Correct: Lara’s company (sing.) will have its (sing.) annual picnic next week.
Complete the following sentences by selecting the correct pronoun. Copy the completed sentence onto your own sheet of paper. Then circle the noun the pronoun replaces.
- In the current economy, nobody wants to waste ________ money on frivolous things.
- If anybody chooses to go to medical school, ________ must be prepared to work long hours.
- The plumbing crew did ________ best to repair the broken pipes before the next ice storm.
- If someone is rude to you, try giving ________ a smile in return.
- My family has ________ faults, but I still love them no matter what.
- The school of education plans to train ________ students to be literacy tutors.
- The commencement speaker said that each student has a responsibility toward ________.
- My mother’s singing group has ________ rehearsals on Thursday evenings.
- No one should suffer ________ pains alone.
- I thought the flock of birds lost ________ way in the storm.
Pronouns as Subjects or Objects
Subject pronouns function as subjects in a sentence. Object pronouns function as the object of a verb or of a preposition. Remember that an object pronoun should never come at the beginning of a sentence.
Table 12.11.5 -- Subject/Object Pronouns
|Singular Pronouns||Plural Pronouns|
|he, she, it||him, her, it||they||them|
The following sentences show pronouns as subjects:
- She loves the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.
- Every summer, they picked up litter from national parks.
The following sentences show pronouns as objects:
- Marie leaned over and kissed him.
- Jane moved it to the corner.
Note that a prounoun can also be the object of a preposition, just as a noun is.
- Near them, the children played.
- My mother stood between us.
Compound Subjects and Objects
Compound subject pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction that, together, function as the subject of the sentence.
The following sentences show pronouns with compound subjects:
Incorrect: Me and Harriet visited the Grand Canyon last summer.
Correct: Harriet and I visited the Grand Canyon last summer.
Correct: Jenna accompanied Harriet and me on our trip.
Note that object pronouns are never used in the subject position. One way to remember this rule is to remove the other subject in a compound subject, leave only the pronoun, and see whether the sentence makes sense. For example, Me visited the Grand Canyon last summer sounds immediately incorrect.
Compound object pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function as the object of the sentence.
Incorrect: I have a good feeling about Janice and I.
Correct: I have a good feeling about Janice and me.
It is correct to write Janice and me, as opposed to me and Janice. Just remember it is more polite to refer to yourself last.
Writing at Work
In casual conversation, people sometimes mix up subject and object pronouns. For instance, you might say, “Me and Donnie went to a movie last night.” However, when you are writing or speaking at work or in any other formal situation, you need to remember the distinctions between subject and object pronouns and be able to correct yourself. These subtle grammar corrections will enhance your professional image and reputation.
Revise the following sentences in which the subject and object pronouns are used incorrectly. Copy the revised sentence onto your own sheet of paper. Write a C for each sentence that is correct.
- Meera and me enjoy doing yoga together on Sundays.
- She and him have decided to sell their house.
- Between you and I, I do not think Jeffrey will win the election.
- Us and our friends have game night the first Thursday of every month.
- They and I met while on vacation in Mexico.
- Napping on the beach never gets boring for Alice and I.
- New Year’s Eve is not a good time for she and I to have a serious talk.
- You exercise much more often than me.
- I am going to the comedy club with Yolanda and she.
- The cooking instructor taught her and me a lot.
Who versus Whom
Who or whoever is always act as subjects. Use who or whoever when the pronoun performs the action indicated by the verb.
Who won the marathon last Tuesday?
I wonder who came up with that terrible idea!
On the other hand, whom and whomever serve as objects. They are used when the pronoun does not perform an action. Use whom or whomever when the pronoun is the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition.
Whom did Frank marry the third time? (direct object of verb)
From whom did you buy that old record player? (object of preposition)
If you are having trouble deciding when to use who and whom, try this trick. Take the following sentence:
Who/Whom do I consider my best friend?
Reorder the sentence in your head by making it into a statement using either he or him in place of who or whom.
I consider him my best friend.
I consider he my best friend.
Which sentence sounds better? The first one, of course. So the trick is, if you can use him, you should use whom.
Complete the following sentences by adding who or whom. Copy the completed sentence onto your own sheet of paper.
- ________ hit the home run?
- I remember ________ won the Academy Award for Best Actor last year.
- To ________ is the letter addressed?
- I have no idea ________ left the iron on, but I am going to find out.
- ________ are you going to recommend for the internship?
- With ________ are you going to Hawaii?
- No one knew ________ the famous actor was.
- ________ in the office knows how to fix the copy machine?
- From ________ did you get the concert tickets?
- No one knew ________ ate the cake mom was saving.
Unclear Pronoun Reference
Clear pronoun reference is necessary for strong writing. We've already talked about clear pronouns reference earlier in the stylistic chapter (Chapter 11), but it's worth repeating here. There are many instances in which the noun a pronoun refers to is unclear. This problem can be because the noun hasn't yet been mentioned, the pronoun refers back to something much earlier, you are alternating between the action of two characters, or the pronoun is indefinite and so a noun needs to be added for clarity. Below are some examples.
- As he inched toward the closet door, Jason became increasingly nervous because he didn't know what he would find.
- As Jason inched toward the closet door, he became increasingly nervous because he didn't know what he would find.
In this case, the vagueness only occurs at the beginning of the sentence until the reader reads "Jason." Then the reader knows who all of the "he's" are in this sentence. But having the first pronoun at the beginning of the sentence forces the reader to go back to the beginning -- however briefly -- to confirm what Jason did. The other uses of "he" are clear. Having a pronoun appear before the noun it represents is not ideal. However given the amount of "he" in the sentence, restructuring the sentence complete might be best.
- Ella and Chris went to the outlet mall to shop and enjoy a movie. After much debate, they decided to watch the latest superhero flick. They ate some popcorn and JuJuBees, and washed that down with some soda. It was exciting.
- Ella and Chris went to the outlet mall to shop and enjoy a movie. After much debate, they decided to watch the latest superhero flick. They ate some popcorn and JuJuBees, and washed that down with some soda. The afternoon was exciting.
In this case, more than one noun that appears in the earlier sentences could be exciting, or the pronoun, "it" could refer to the whole afternoon. Pronouns must refer back to the closest noun before that is of the same type. Because "it" refers to an object or idea, "it" could refer to anything Ella and Chris ate or drank, the movie itself, the mall, or the whole experience. The pronoun reference is unclear. "They" is fine because the only nouns "they" could refer to, given that "they" is plural, are Ella and Chris.
- Macbeth and Banquo fought each other, and as he drew his sword, he ran for his life.
- Macbeth and Banquo fought each other, and as Macbeth drew his sword, Banquo ran for his life.
Please note: this scene never happened in Macbeth. However, if it had, we would not know who drew his sword nor who ran for his life. In this case, it's best to use the nouns so that who did what is clear.
- Voters went to the polls on Tuesday. Some of them stopped working, however.
- Voters went to the polls on Tuesday. Some of the polling stations stopped working, however.
Because both nouns are plural, and "some of them" refers to a few of a group, the pronouns could refer to either the voters, themselves, or the polling stations. We don't know if some of the voters didn't work because they were going to vote or whether some of the polling stations stopped working, the latter of which would be a big problem. In this case, it's best to state the noun rather than use a prnoun.
Rewrite the following sentences to the best of your ability to make the pronoun reference clear.
- Although the ice cream and sauce were delicious, Candy worried about how many calories it had.
- Stunned by the beauty of the Northern Lights, Vikram decided to stay there a week longer for his vacation.
- Daffodils, tulips, and anemones are all beautiful spring flowers, and they were Tanya's favorites.
- This is where the meeting of the minds can occur.
- Noor was overwhelmed by all of the things for sale at the warehouse store. There was food, clothing, books, electronics, restaurant supplies, and even auto supplies. She didn't know where to start, but she knew she wanted some.
- The grains of sand and shells each felt rough against her feet, but they felt good, too, until she cut herself on it.
Contributors and Attributions
CC LICENSED CONTENT, SHARED PREVIOUSLY:
- Adapted from College ESL Writers: Applied Grammar and Composing Strategies for Success. Authored by: Barbara Hall and Elizabeth Wallace. Provided by: GALILEO Open Learning Materials. License: CC BY-NC-SA (3.0): Attribution.
This page was most recently updated on June 8, 2020.