Pronouns

Chapter One, "Going Pro?"

Customary definition: Pronouns take the place of a noun. We use them to avoid annoying repetition, as in the following sentence:

  • When the ball rolled into the street, the ball caused traffic problems.

Using pronouns, the sentence is more enjoyable to read.

  • When the ball rolled into the street, it caused traffic problems.

Summary:
Therefore, we see that the pronouns tell readers that you are going to give more information about a specific thing (in this case, the ball) without making them go through the boredom of reading the same words over and over again.

A Problem:
In order to avoid confusion, the pronouns you use must follow certain rules which help the reader to understand which specific word or person a pronoun replaces. The next section further explains this topic, otherwise known as...

Chapter Two, Agreeing with Egregious Antecedents

What is an antecedent? The antecedent is the word which is replaced by a pronoun. In the sentence

  • That house is green, and its windows are broken.

"Its" replaces the antecedent, "house."

An antecedent is much like an ancestor--such as your own annoying aunt--and like an irritating ancestor, it always demands attention. Both antecedents and aunts don't like to be referred to except in the most proper ways. The following are the ways in which our antecedents have demanded respect:


1) Antecedents (shown in bold) ask that their pronouns (shown in italics) address their superior taste in numbers and genders:

Number-

  • The books are falling; please catch them.
  • The book is falling; please catch it.

Gender-

  • My aunt is a large person; after all, it took five of us on one end to balance her weight on the see- saw. The man was quite old, and even his eyes were synthetic.

2) Antecedents containing the word ONE (indefinite pronouns) always want to be known as singular (Memory device: They are ONE in number, or singular.):

  • Someone in this class had better start doing her work.

The only exception to this rule is the word "everyone," which has of late turned radical. The English language is changing, and "everyone" is one case in which the indefinite pronoun rules are ambiguous. Therefore, the following sentence is the conventional form:

  • Everyone is responsible for his own paper.
  • Everyone is responsible for her own paper.

or

  • Everyone is responsible for his or her own paper.

Whereas this sentence exhibits the radical, new usage:

  • Everyone is responsible for their own paper.

Whichever you decide to use, keep your pronouns consistent throughout your writing.


3) Collective nouns (the class, the committee, the team...) have a somewhat schizophrenic personality. Sometimes, they act as one person (singular). At other times, they act as though they have many personalities (plural). Be careful; use the correct pronoun so as not to get on a collective noun's bad side.

In this sentence, the collective noun is in a normal mood, feeling intact and acting like one person:

  • The team finally decided to hire Mr. Art Buckwald as its coach; after all, he had a healthy chip on his shoulder.

However, this time, the collective noun's personality is scattered into exactly twenty five pieces:

  • The team put their signatures on their contracts, sealing the expensive fate of the little league management.

(I.e. "The twenty five members of" the team put their signatures on their contracts.)


4) Antecedents resent it very much when their pronoun does not address their ego directly:

  • When the bat hit the ball with all the force that a monster could muster, it broke.

Better:

  • When the bat hit the ball with all the force that a monster could muster, the bat broke.

or

  • Sam told Kevin that all his bats were in the basement collecting mice.

Better:

  • Sam told Kevin, "All your bats are in the basement collecting mice."

5) Finally, certain aunt-antecedents have pointed out that their gender has been habitually violated. Here is an example:

  • A student who likes tennis is likely to buy his own racket.

This particular antecedent, though you may not notice at first, is being oppressed. Why does the pronoun in this sentence assume that "student" is masculine? It simply is not fair. Therefore, perhaps we should try any of these alternatives:

-make the antecedent plural:

  • Students who like tennis are likely to buy their own rackets.

-use "his or her" (this technique becomes annoying to the reader if overused):

  • A student who likes tennis is likely to buy his or her own racket.

-alternate between masculine and feminine if you plan to use the same reference repeatedly:

  • A student who likes tennis is likely to buy his own racket.
  • A student preferring physics, however, will not buy her own rotation devices.
  • Parents are lucky that the average chemistry major usually does not buy his own home laboratory equipment.
  • Overall, college students find that their tuition is high enough to preclude such excessive spending.

No matter what strategy one uses, the main idea, of course, is to avoid gender bias in your writing while attempting to escape needless repetition as well.

See also Randy Schultz's lively and entertaining Common Pronoun Problems page!

Prepared by Rodney Young