Using Pronouns

Pronoun Reference

Pronouns usually refer to other words, called their antecedents because they (should) come before the pronoun. A pronoun's antecedent may be either a noun or another pronoun, but in either case, it must be clear what the antecedent is. Consider this example:

Micheline told Ruth that she would take Jerry to the barn dance.

It is not clear whether the pronoun "she" in this sentence refers to Ruth or Micheline. Unless pronouns refer unmistakably to distinct, close, and single antecedents, the reader will never be sure who's going to the square dance with whom.

A pronoun should have only one possible antecedent

If there is more than one possible antecedent for a personal pronoun in a sentence, make sure that the pronoun refers only to one of them:

[WRONG] Jerry found a gun in the trousers which he wore.

"Which he wore" could modify "trousers" or "gun."

[WRONG] Jerry called Steve twelve times while he was in Reno.

The pronoun "he" could refer either to "Jerry" or to "Steve."

A pronoun should not refer to an implied idea

Make sure that the pronoun refers to a specific rather than to an implicit antecedent: When you leave the antecedent implied instead of stating it explicitly, the reader has to try to guess your sentence's meaning:

[WRONG] John put a bullet in his gun and shot it.

The pronoun "it" can refer either to the noun "gun" or to the implied object of the verb "shot."

[WRONG] If I told you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?

The pronoun "it" can refer to the noun "body" or to the entire statement.

[WRONG] The craftspersons' union reached an agreement on Ruth's penalty, but it took time.

The pronoun "it" can refer to the noun "union" or to the implied process of decision making.

A pronoun should not refer to adjectives or possessive nouns

You should not use adjectives, or nouns or pronouns in the possessive case, as antecedents. Although they may imply a noun, reference to them will be ambiguous:

In Ruth's apology she told Jerry she'd loved him for years.

In this case, the pronoun "she" seems to refer to the noun phrase "Ruth's apology," though it was probably meant to refer to possessive noun "Ruth's."

Jerry wore those blasted green knickers; it was his favourite colour.

In this example, the pronoun "it" seems to refer to the noun "knickers," though it was probably meant to refer to the adjective "green."

A pronoun should not refer to a title

When you start your paper, do not write as if the title itself were part of the body of the paper. Often, the title will appear on a separate page, and your opening will be confusing. Imagine, for example, a paper entitled "How to Sew Green Knickers": you should not begin the first paragraph with a sentence like

This is not as easy as it looks.

The writer probably wanted the pronoun "this" to refer to the idea of sewing knickers, but since the idea is not in the body of the paper itself, the reference will not make sense.

Use "it," "they," and "you" carefully

In conversation people often use expressions such as "It says in this book that ..." and "In my home town they say that ...". These constructions are useful for information conversation because they allow you to present ideas casually, without supporting evidence; for academic writing, however, these constructions are either too imprecise or too wordy:

[WRONG] In Chapter four of my autobiography it says that I was born out of wedlock.

In Chapter four, what says that the speaker was born out of wedlock?

[WRONG] In the restaurant they gave me someone else's linguini.

Who gave the speaker someone else's linguini?

It would be better to rewrite these two sentences as follow:

[RIGHT] Chapter four of my autobiography states that I was born out of wedlock.
[RIGHT] In the restaurant, the server gave me someone else's linguini.

In these revised sentences, there is no doubt about who is doing what.

The same basic rule applies to the pronoun "you." In informal conversation and in instructional writing (like HyperGrammar), English speakers often use the pronoun to mean something like "a hypothetical person" or "people in general"; academic writing, however, needs to be more precise, and you should use "you" only when you want to address the reader directly (as I am doing here). Consider this example:

[WRONG] In the fourteenth century, you had to struggle to survive.

In this case, "you" obviously does not refer to the reader, since the reader was not alive during the seventeenth century. It would be better to rewrite the sentence so that it expresses your idea more precisely; for example

[RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, people had to struggle to survive.

Or even better yet,

[RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, English peasant farmers had to struggle to survive.

Use "it" consistently within a sentence

There are three common uses of the pronoun "it":

As an idiom
"It is snowing";
To postpone the subject
"It is untrue that a rhinoceros can run faster than my tights"; and
As a personal pronoun
"I wanted a rhinoceros for my birthday, but did not get it."

You may use all of these in academic writing, but to avoid awkwardness, you should not use more than one within a single sentence:

[WRONG] When it is my birthday, I hope to receive a rhinoceros, and I will walk it often.

It would be better to eliminate the first (idiomatic) "it":

On my birthday, I hope to receive a rhinoceros, and I will walk it often.

Use "who," "which," and "that" carefully

Historically, writers, editors, and publishers have had difficulty establishing a clear guideline for using the relative pronouns "who," "which," and "that," in formal writing, but over the last fifty years or so they have come a loose standard. According to this standard, the pronoun "who" usually refers to people, but may also refer to animals that have names:

My mother, who gave me the rhino, must love me very much. My rhino, whom I call Spike, wanders at will through the house.

The pronoun "which" refers to animals and things:

The rhino, which is a much maligned and misunderstood animal, is really quite affectionate. Its horn is a matt of hair which is sort of stuck to its snout.

Finally, the pronoun "that" refers to animals and things and occasionally to persons when they are collective or anonymous:

The rhino that hid behind the television was missing for days.
Rhinos that like to swim cause both plumbing and enamelling problems for their owners.
The answer that everyone missed was "Etruscan."

Written by Dorothy Turner

Tricky Points of Pronoun Usage

This section covers some relatively tricky points which are no longer standard in spoken English, though many people still insist upon them in formal writing.

Pronouns in Apposition

A pronoun should also be in the subject case when it is in apposition to a subject or subject complement, and in the object case when it is in apposition to the object of a verb, verbal, or preposition:

[RIGHT] Three craftspeople -- Mary, Albert, and he -- made the accessory for Jerry.

The phrase "Mary, Albert, and he" is in apposition to "craftspeople," the subject of the sentence.

[RIGHT] The accessory was made by three craftspeople, Mary, Albert, and him.

The phrase "Mary, Albert, and him" is still in apposition to the noun "craftspeople," but that noun has become the object of the preposition "by," so the pronoun "him" is in the object case.

[RIGHT] The three craftspeople involved were Mary, Albert, and she.

The pronoun "she" is part of the subject complement, so it is in the subject case.

"Us" and "we" before a Noun

A first-person plural pronoun used with a noun takes the case of the noun. If the noun functions as a subject, the pronoun should be in the subject case; if the noun functions as an object, the pronoun should be in the object case:

We rowdies left the restaurant late.
The restaurant owner mumbled at all us slow eaters.

Using 'than' or 'as' in a Comparison

In elliptical comparisons, where the writer has left some words out of a sentence, the case of the pronoun at the end of the sentence determines its meaning. When a sentence ends with a subjective pronoun, the pronoun must serve as the subject of the omitted verb. When a sentence ends with an objective pronoun, the pronoun must serve as the object of the omitted verb:

Elliptical
Ruth likes Jerry better than I.
Complete
Ruth likes Jerry better than I like Jerry.
Elliptical
Ruth likes Jerry better than me.
Complete
Ruth likes Jerry better than she likes me.

Written by Dorothy Turner