A pronoun is used in a sentence to replace and refer to a noun. The noun being replaced is the antecedent.

Ex.: The stapler disappeared from the desk. Alice wondered if it had grown legs.

Ex.: Alice accidentally knocked the stapler into the trash can. It was thrown away.

In the first example “stapler” is the antecedent to the pronoun “it.” Because “it” replaces an object, it is known as an object pronoun. For the second example the pronoun, replaced a subject, those pronouns are called subject pronouns.

Pronouns can also show possession and replace possessive nouns.

Ex.: Alice’s trash can was emptied last night; her stapler is gone forever.

Object pronouns
me, you, him, her, it, us, them

Subject pronouns
I, you, he/she, it, we, they

Possessive pronouns
My/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, ours, their/theirs

Easy mistakes

There are several easy mistakes to make with pronouns because common usages are not correct, making the proper application feel awkward.

1. Compound subjects
Using the correct pronouns for compound subjects is an easy way to keep from losing points in your writing. The best way to check for the correct pronoun is to separate out the subjects.

Tom and me went to the car dealership.
Tom and I went to the car dealership.

If we wrote the sentence with only the pronoun it would read like this:

Me went to the car dealership.
I went to the car dealership.

Because the ‘I’ sentence is grammatically correct on its own, ‘I’ is the correct pronoun. These errors use an incorrect class of pronoun: ‘Me’ is an object pronoun, where ‘I’ is a subject. If you are unsure, ask yourself if the pronoun is replacing a subject, object, or possessive, and consult the above lists.

2. Number agreement

If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must also be singular.

Any person with a smartphone can check their email.
Any person with a smartphone can check his\her email.
Anyone with a smartphone can check their email.

The first example is incorrect because the singular ‘any person’ is paired with the plural ‘their.’ ‘His/her’ is a singular possessive pronoun that can pair with ‘any person.’ The writer can also change ‘any person’ to the plural ‘anyone’ and use the plural possessive pronoun ‘their.’

Note: Depending on your professor’s preferences ‘their’ can be both singular and plural. Most grammar checks will allow this double usage. Be sure to check with your professors to find if they have a preference.

3. Person agreement

Pronouns and their antecedents must be in the same person. If the antecedent is in the first person, the pronoun too must be in the first person and so on.

People get annoyed by being stuck in traffic, but you are traffic.
People get annoyed by being stuck in traffic, but they are traffic.

Because people is a plural antecedent it requires the plural ‘they.’

The third person is often difficult to find a pronoun for and not be repetitive. Most often, writers use ‘you’ as a third person pronoun, but there are other options.

You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.
One does not get stuck in traffic, one is traffic.
One does not get stuck in traffic, he/she is traffic.

Note: Again, third person pronouns can be a matter of preference for writers and professors. Be sure to ask if there are third person pronouns that your professors do not like.

4. Ensuring clarity

The greatest danger of using pronouns is that they can sacrifice clarity in your writing. Writing, especially formal writing lacks the opportunity to add or ask for clarification that a conversation grants. If a listener to a conversation loses track of the subject they can ask, “Which she? Who is you?” Because these questions cannot be asked by a reader of a paper, it is essential to retain clarity.  If you have an antecedent that is paired with a like person or object (Greg and Ben) and you use pronouns for both (he and his) the reader does not know which antecedent each pronoun is referencing.

Greg and Ben were enemies; he keyed his car.

From the example, there is not enough information for the reader to know whether Ben or Greg was the offender. This can be remedied by repeating a name.

Greg and Ben were enemies; Ben keyed his car.

Or you can abstain from using pronouns altogether.

Greg and Ben were enemies; Ben keyed Greg’s car.