Pronouns: Common Problems

Randy's Pronoun Page

Early in our education, English teachers attempt to drill the use of pronouns into students' heads. But as students proceed further in their education, the proper use of pronouns continues to be a problem and a hindrance to students' writing performance. Almost all students use pronouns when they speak and write, but many of them do not know the proper usage. Before understanding common problems with pronoun usage, it is necessary to know the definition of a pronoun. For more information, see also Pronouns by Rodney Young.

The Basics of Pronouns

Definition: A word that takes the place of a noun. Pronouns are used to avoid repetitive use of the same noun within a sentence or narrative. The following is an example of a sentence written without pronouns:

  • When the angry bear became hungry, the angry bear ate.

-The sentence would sound much better if a pronoun were introduced:

  • When the angry bear became hungry, he ate.

-The essential counterpart of a pronoun is its antecedent, and an antecedent is defined as the word to which a pronoun refers. For example, in the previous example, he is the pronoun and bear is the antecedent. More background on pronouns can be found in the Practical English Handbook, 10th Edition, by Watkins/Dillingham. With this understood, some common problems dealing with pronoun usage and pronoun/antecedent agreement can be addressed.

Common Problems with Pronoun Usage and Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

Interrogative Pronouns

Interrogative Pronouns are one of the worst trouble areas for students. Interrogative Pronouns ask questions and include the following: what, who, whom, whose, which. The most common ones misused are who and whom. Who is used for the subjective case; whom, for the objective case. Examples follow.

In Questions: Subjective

  • Incorrect: Whom frightened the mouse?
  • Correct: Who frightened the mouse?

In Questions: Objective

  • Incorrect: Who did the mouse scare?
  • Correct: Whom did the mouse scare?

In summary, use the pronoun who in a question when it takes the place of the subject, and use the pronoun whom when it takes the places of the object.

In the Dependent Clause:

In order to choose the correct pronoun in a dependent clause, first identify the clause, then determine the function of the pronoun in that clause. If it serves as the subject, use who(whoever); if it serves as the object, use whom(whomever). Examples follow(Dependent clauses are in bold).

  • Subjective: I saw who scared the mouse.

Since the pronoun is taking the place of the subject, who is used.

  • Objective: I saw the man whom the mouse scared.

Since the pronoun is taking the place of the object, whom is used.

Singular Pronouns with Singular Antecedents, and Plural Pronouns with Plural Antecedents.

Here is another aspect of pronouns that is often misused in writing. In speech, this problem is often unnoticed. In writing, on the other hand, it is very noticeable. A singular pronoun must refer to a singular antecedent and a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent. Examples follow.

Singular

  • Incorrect: The person wrote their paper quickly.
  • Correct: The person wrote his or her paper quickly.

In this instance, his or her replaces the singular antecedent, person.

Plural

  • Incorrect: The writers wrote his papers quickly.
  • Correct: The writers wrote their papers quickly.

In this instance, their replaces the plural antecedent, writers.

Collective Noun Antecedents

A very common problem arises when students use a collective noun antecedent when the group members are considered a unit. When using the collective noun antecedent, a singular pronoun is used. Although the antecedent refers to more than one person, a plural pronoun is incorrect. Examples follow:

  • Incorrect: The construction crew finished their project.
  • Correct: The construction crew finished its project.

When the group members are considered individually, then the plural pronoun is used.

  • Incorrect: The construction crew, some of them laughing, strolled onto the work site and gathered its tools.
  • Correct: The construction crew, some of them laughing, strolled onto the work site and gathered their tools.

This problem is one of the most common mistakes with pronoun use and is often overlooked by students when proofreading their own papers.

Singular Antecedents including: each, either, neither, one, no one, everyone, someone, anyone, nobody, everybody, somebody, and anybody.

Here is another problem area. Most writers tend to use the incorrect plural pronoun with these singular antecedents, but these antecedents require singular pronouns. Writers assume that these antecedents are plural because they are unknown. The root of each word, such as -one or -body, is singular. Therefore, the pronoun must be singular.

  • Incorrect: Everyone loves their baby.
  • Correct: Everyone who is a mother loves her baby.

The Pronoun Gender Problem: Three Alternatives

Traditionally, he and his were pronouns used to refer to both sexes when the antecedent was unknown. Society now feels that this usage is unfair to women, so one male pronoun should be avoided in sentences. Here are three alternatives.

Sentence: Each person has to face his fear of sharks.

  1. Make the sentence plural.
    All persons have to face their fear of sharks.
  2. Use he or she (his or her).
    Each person has to face his or her fear of sharks.
  3. Use the or avoid the singular pronoun.
    Each person must face the fear of sharks.

Pronouns Must Clearly Refer to Definite Antecedents

Here is the case of the vague pronoun which could refer to more than one part of the sentence. Not only does the vague pronoun jumble up the sentence, but also it makes the sentence difficult to understand. As a rule, pronouns should not refer to an entire sentence, a clause, or unidentified people.

  • Vague Antecedent: Roger plays with rabbits but also hunts them. This is one reason why Roger likes rabbits.

To what does this refer? It could refer to a number of things, either playing or hunting, or something unknown. The sentence would be clear if it were as follows:

  • Clear Antecedent: Roger likes rabbits because he can play with them and hunt them.

--Other vague pronouns include it, them , they, and you.

  • Vague: They often eat them for dinner.

This sentence is too vague. They could refer to anyone, and them could refer to anything. The sentence needs to be clearer.

  • Clear: Roger's family often eats rabbits for dinner.

--Be sure that the pronoun used refers clearly to one antecedent, never vaguely to two.

  • Vague: Roger visited his father before he went hunting.
  • Clear: Before his father went hunting, Roger visited him.

Reference:Watkins, Floyd C., and William B. Dillingham. Practical English Handbook. 10th Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Created by Randall J. Schultz, Jr.