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Dr. Karen Palmer

Understanding Pronouns

A first step in understanding how and when to use pronouns properly is having an overall picture of pronouns. In this section of the chapter, we’ll cover pronoun types and cases.

Pronoun Types

There are seven types of pronouns: Personal, Possessive, Reflexive, Relative, Demonstrative, Indefinite, and Interrogative.

Study the following table for an overview of the different types of pronouns. Note that some pronouns, such as possessive pronouns and interrogative pronouns, show up on more than one list:

Type of Pronoun Use

List of Pronouns

Example
Demonstrative pronouns Refer to things

that

these

this

those

This trail is the longest one.
Indefinite pronouns Refer to nonspecific people or things

Singular:

anybody

anyone

everybody

everyone

everything

nothing

one

someone

somebody

Singular or plural:

all

any

more

most

none

some

Do you know anyone who has hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?

Plural:

both

few

many

Interrogative pronouns Are used in questions

that

what

whatever

which

whichever

who

whoever

whom

whose

Who wants to sign up to ride the mules down into the Grand Canyon?
Personal pronouns Refer to people or things

Subjective case:

he

I

it

she

they

we

you

Objective case:

her

him

it

me

them

us

you

If you ask Alicia, she will tell you that I am too chicken to ride the mules even though none of them has ever gone over the edge.

Possessive case:

his

her(s)

its

my

mine

our(s)

their(s)

your(s)

Possessive pronouns Show ownership without using an apostrophe

his

her(s)

its

my

mine

our(s)

their(s)

your(s)

Regardless of the expense, a helicopter ride is my choice for seeing the Grand Canyon.
Reciprocal pronouns Refer to separate parts of a plural antecedent

each other

one another

The mules calmly follow each other all the way up and down.

Reflexive and intensive pronouns

End in –self or –selves. Reflexive pronouns are needed for a sentence to make sense, and intensive pronouns are optional within a sentence

herself

himself

itself

myself

oneself

ourselves

themselves

yourself

yourselves

The guides themselves put their lives in the hands, or rather hooves, of the mules every day.
Relative pronouns Show how dependent clause relates to a noun

that

what

whatever

which

whichever

who

whoever

whom

whomever

whose

As long as I get to see the Grand Canyon from a vantage point other than the edge, I am happy to choose whichever option you want.

Pronoun Cases

Pronouns in English have different forms for the subjective, adjective possessive, possessive, and objective cases. The subjective case refers to words as they are used in the subject position. The objective case is used when the pronoun is in the object position (the direct object, indirect object, or object of the preposition). The possessive cases designate pronouns used to show possession. (Note that the possessive cases are also known as Possessive Pronouns). Note that a pronoun can show possession in two ways. The reflexive pronouns are used to point back to the subject (i.e., I can do it myself). The table below shows the subjective, objective, adjective possessive, possessive, and reflexive versions in the first, second, and third singular and objective cases:

Person Singular or Plural Subjective Objective Adj. Possessive Possessive
First Singular I me my mine
Second Singular you you your yours
Third Singular he/she/it him/her/its his/her/its his/hers/its
First Plural we us our ours
Second Plural you you your yours
Third Plural they them their theirs

Indefinite Pronouns

Subjective Possessive Objective
anybody anybody’s anybody
everybody everybody’s everybody
someone someone’s someone

Relative Pronoun Case

Noun clauses can serve as subjects or objects and often begin with one of these relative pronouns: that, what, whatever, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose. Logically, you should use subjective case pronouns in noun clauses that function as subjects and objective case pronouns in noun clauses that function as objects.

Subjective Possessive Objective
that that
which which
who whose whom
whoever whoever’s (slang) whomever

Subjective Case Example: Joshua Tree National Park, which is in California, is named after a tree that is actually a member of the lily family.

Objective Case Example: A Joshua tree looks like neither its relative, the lily, nor the biblical figure, Joshua, whom the tree is said to be named after.

Tips for Avoiding Pronoun Case Problems

Now that you have a basic understanding about pronoun types and cases, it’s time to address some typical problems with pronoun usage.

I vs Me

If you have trouble choosing between “I” and “me” in compound subject and object situations, remove the other subject or object, and try “I” or “me” alone.

Which of these two choices are correct?

At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of Anna and I.

OR

At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of Anna and me.

Test: At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of (I, me).

Result: Since the correct choice alone is “me,” the correct choice within the compound object is also “me”—At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of Anna and me.

Who vs Whom

If you are confused about whether to use who or whom in a dependent clause, try isolating the clause that includes who or whom. Then reword the clause as a sentence and substitute a personal pronoun (subjective case: he, she, they; objective case: him, her, them) for who or whom. If he, she, or they sounds right, use who. If him, her, or them sounds right, use whom.

Example: I don’t know (who, whom) to ask about where to stay at the Grand Tetons.

Test: Possible rewording—I don’t know if I should ask (he, she, they, him, her, them).

Result: Since him, her, or them are the choices that work, the correct choice in the first sentence is whom—I don’t know whom to ask about where to stay at the Grand Tetons.

If you are confused about whether to use who or whom at the beginning of a sentence, think of an answer for the sentence using a personal pronoun. Then mimic the case of the answer pronoun in the original sentence.

Example 1: (Who, Whom) is getting up at sunrise to watch the sun come up over these magnificent trees?

Test: They will get up.

Result: Since they is subjective case, you should use who, which is also subjective case.

Example 2: (Who, Whom) did you ask to watch the fire?

Test: I asked her to watch the fire.

Result: Since her is objective case, you should use whom, which is also objective case.

When the Sentence is Incomplete

In casual usage, some words are sometimes left out, thus requiring a pronoun to do extra work. If you are confused about which pronoun case to use in these situations, think about how the sentence would be written if it were totally complete. Considering the whole sentence meaning should help clarify the pronoun choice.

Example 1: Harry likes camping more than (her, she).

Test: Harry likes camping more than she (likes camping).

Result: The pronoun she is the subject of the assumed verb likes. So subjective case is needed.

Example 2: Harry likes camping more than (her, she).

Test: Harry likes camping more than (he likes) her.

Result: The pronoun her is the object of the assumed verb likes. So objective case is needed.

We vs Us

If you are unsure whether to use we and us before a noun or noun phrase, say the sentence without the noun or noun phrase in place. Whichever pronoun works without the noun or noun phrase is also the correct pronoun to use with the noun.

Example 1: Even (us, we) people who like our creature comforts fall in love with nature when viewing the Grand Tetons.

Test: Even we fall in love with nature when viewing the Grand Tetons.

Result: Once people who like our creature comforts is dropped out, it becomes clear that the pronoun needs to be subjective case.

Example 2: Don’t wait for (us, we) creature-comfort people to come up with a plan.

Test: Don’t wait for us to come up with a plan.

Result: Once creature-comfort people is dropped, it becomes clear that the pronoun needs to be objective case.

Exercise 1

1. Choose the correct pronoun for each sentence. Then, for each choice, indicate whether it is subjective, objective, or possessive case.

  • I don’t know (her, she).
  • (Us, We) girls are meeting at 7:00 p.m.
  • (Who, Whom) do you think will show up first?
  • That car is (theirs, their’s).
  • We aren’t sure (who, whom) got here first.
  • (Its, It’s) about time we clear the air.
  • The jacket fits him better than (I, me).

2. Complete these steps for the following sentences:

  • Use one of these relative pronouns to fill in each of the following blanks: that, what, whatever, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose.
  • Determine whether the clause that each relative pronoun introduces is a noun clause or an adjective clause.
  • For each noun clause, indicate whether it is subjective or objective case.
  1. The swimmer _______________ won the race had been sick all last week.
  2. Caley, _______________the coach thought would win her race, defaulted in the first lap.
  3. The dog _______________ ate your hot dog is behind the hose.
  4. The boy _______________ you saw is my brother.

 

Exercise 2

1. Complete this online quiz.

Making Pronouns and Antecedents Agree

Pronouns can be somewhat confusing, but they can help make your use of language smoother and more compact. For example, if your name were Pete Rando, you could write, “Pete Rando is going back to wait to go back to Pete Rando’s camper until Pete Rando’s friends have seen the sunset at the Grand Canyon.” Or you could say, “I’m going to wait to go back to my camper until my friends have seen the sunset at the Grand Canyon.” Another step in properly using pronouns is to recognize a pronoun’s antecedent, which is the noun or pronoun to which a pronoun refers, and make sure the pronoun and antecedent match in number, person, gender, and human versus nonhuman state. Also, to make the antecedent-pronoun match clear, the pronoun should follow relatively soon after the antecedent, and no other possible antecedent should fall between the antecedent and the pronoun.

Antecedent Situations Example in a Sentence Pronoun Antecedent Guidelines
Compound antecedents Joey and Hannah spent the weekend with their parents at the Grand Teton National Park. As an antecedent, “Joey and Hannah” is plural, non-gender-specific, human, and third person, so the pronoun must match. Hence their works, but, for example, our, his, her, and them would not work.
Indefinite pronouns that act as an antecedent for other pronouns Some of the moose left their footprints in our campsite. Since “of the moose” is a nonessential phrase, the antecedent for their is some. The pronoun some can be singular or plural, so it agrees with their, which is plural.
Collective noun antecedents The Teton Range is quite regal as it protrudes upwards nearly seven thousand feet. Teton Range is a collective noun and, therefore, is considered single (multiple mountains within the range, but only one range). It is nonhuman, so it agrees with it. Collective nouns are sometimes an exception to the human versus nonhuman guideline since a noun, such as “crew” or “audience,” can match to the pronoun its.
Antecedents and gender-biased pronouns Everyone should make his or her own choice about hike lengths. Years ago, acceptable writing included using male pronouns to refer to all unknown- or collective-gender antecedents. Today such usage is considered sexist. Some people opt to use their with singular antecedents instead of using his or her. Such usage should never be used in formal writing because it is technically incorrect since everyone is singular and their is plural.
Ambiguous antecedents Ambiguous: The trails wind high into the mountains where they seem to disappear into the sky. When a pronoun antecedent is unclear, such as in this situation where readers do not know if the trails or the mountains seem to disappear into the sky, you should reword the sentence by either (1) eliminating or (2) moving the pronoun (and probably other words).
Example #1: The trails wind high into the mountains where the trails seem to disappear into the sky.
Example #2: High in the mountains, the trails wind as they seem to disappear into the sky.
Vague or implied antecedents Vague or implied: The Grand Teton park wetland trails go past areas where deer, elk, and moose are often seen, so it should be a lot of fun. The antecedent of it is not clear because the writer used a shortcut. Instead of referring to any of the nouns that preceded it in the sentence, it refers to an unstated antecedent, such as the experience or the hike. A better way to write the sentence: The Grand Teton park wetland trails go past areas where deer, elk, and moose are often seen, so the hike should be a lot of fun.
Antecedents in previous sentences The Grand Teton National Park was formed in 1929. In 1950, it was sort of re-formed when additional land was added. Antecedents should be present within the same sentence unless the flow of the sentences is such that the antecedent/pronoun connection is very clear.

Connecting Pronouns and Antecedents Clearly

Matching a pronoun with its antecedent in terms of number (singular or plural) can be tricky. To avoid pronoun and antecedent problems, you should take three steps:

    1. Identify the antecedent.
    2. Determine if the antecedent is singular or plural.
    3. Make sure the antecedent and pronoun match, preferably by making both plural if possible.

    1. Antecedent Identification

    The antecedent is the noun the pronoun represents in a sentence. When you see a pronoun, you should be able to understand its meaning by looking at the rest of the sentence. Look at the following sentence:

    The Smiths picked apples for hours, and they put them in large boxes.

    The antecedent for “they” is “the Smiths.” The antecedent for “them” is “apples.”

    Read each of the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.

    • LaBeth fell on the floor and found out it was harder than she thought.

      it—floor; she—LaBeth

     

    • The women chatted as they jogged along with their pets.

      they—the women; their—the women’s

     

    • When Abe lost his gloves, he backtracked looking for them.

      his—Abe’s; he—Abe; them—gloves

    As sentences become more complicated or whole paragraphs are involved, identifying pronoun antecedents might also become more complicated. As long as pronouns and antecedents are used properly, however, you should be able to find the antecedent for each pronoun.

    Read the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun:

    The ancient Mayans targeted December 12, 2012, as a momentous day that marks the end of a 5,126-year era. Today scholars speculate about what the Mayans expected to happen on that day and if they (the Mayans) saw it (December 12, 2012) as a time for celebration or fear. Some say that the end of an era would have been a cause for celebration. Others view it (December 12, 2012) as an impending ominous situation due to its (December 12, 2012’s) unknown nature. At any rate, you (the reader) can rest assured that many scholars will be paying attention as the upcoming date draws near.

    2. Determine if the Antecedent is Singular or Plural

    When you are writing and using pronouns and antecedents, begin by identifying whether the antecedent is singular or plural. As you can see by looking at the following table, making this determination is sometimes not as easy as it might seem:

    Antecedent Singular or Plural? Explanation
    dog Singular Common singular nouns function as singular antecedents.
    singers Plural Common plural nouns function as plural antecedents.
    everybody Singular Indefinite pronouns sometimes function as antecedents. Since they refer to nonspecific things or people, their number can be ambiguous. To solve this problem, indefinite pronouns are treated as singular. Other indefinite pronouns include anyone, each, everyone, someone, and something.
    team Singular Words that stand for one group are singular even though the group includes plural members.
    team members Plural By very definition, the members in a group number more than one, so the term is plural.
    coat and hat Plural When two or more nouns are joined by “and,” they create a plural entity.
    coat or hat Singular When two or more nouns are joined by “or,” the singular or plural determination of such an antecedent is based on the last-mentioned noun. In this case, “hat” is mentioned last and is singular. So the antecedent is singular.
    coat or hats Plural Since the last-mentioned noun in this set is plural, as an antecedent this set would be plural.
    coats or hat Singular Since the last-mentioned noun in this set is singular, as an antecedent this set would be singular, even though the set includes a plural noun. (Note: as a matter of style, try to avoid this arrangement by using the “singular or plural” sequence for your antecedents.)

    3. Make sure the Antecedent and Pronoun Match

    Antecedents and pronouns need to match in terms of number (singular or plural) and gender. For purposes of clarity, try to keep a pronoun relatively close to its antecedent. When the antecedent is not immediately clear, make a change such as rearranging the words, changing from singular to plural, or replacing the pronoun with a noun. Each of the following sentences has an antecedent/pronoun matching problem. Read each sentence and think about the problem. Then check below each example for a correction and an explanation:

    Number (Singular or Plural)

    Original: The singer kept a bottle of water under their stool.

    Revision: Angela, the singer, kept a bottle of water under her stool.

    Explanation: Since “singer” is singular, the pronoun must be singular. In this situation, to say “his or her” sounds odd, so the best choice would be to revise the sentence to clarify the gender of the singer.

    Original: Each student should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.

    Revision: Students should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.

    Explanation: Often, as in this situation, the best solution is to switch the subject from singular to plural so you can avoid having to use “his or her.”

    Original: Everyone should do what they think is best.

    Revision: Everyone should do what he or she thinks is best.

    OR

    All employees should do what they think is best.

    Explanation: Indefinite pronouns are treated as singular in the English language even when they have an intended plural meaning. You have to either use a singular pronoun or revise the sentence to eliminate the indefinite pronoun as the antecedent.

    Original: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took their first airline flight as a group.

    Revision: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took its first airline flight as a group.

    Explanation: Collective nouns are singular since they represent, for example, one team, one crowd, or one family. Although the pronoun “it” is used for nonhuman reference, it can also be used to reference a singular collective noun that involves humans.

    Original: Neither Cathy nor the Petersons wanted to give up her place in line.

    Revision: Neither Cathy nor the Petersons wanted to give up their place in line.

    Explanation: In situations involving “or” or “nor,” the antecedent must match the noun closest to the pronoun, which in this case is Petersons. Since Petersons is plural, the pronoun must be plural.

    Original: The dogs and the cat ate all its food immediately.

    Revision: The dogs and the cat ate all their food immediately.

    Explanation: When joined by “and,” compound antecedents are plural and, therefore, take a plural pronoun.

    Gender

    Original: Each member is responsible for his own dues and registration.

    Revision: Each member is responsible for his or her own dues and registration.

    OR

    Members are responsible for their own dues and registration.

    Explanation: Using “he,” “his,” or “him” as a universal singular pronoun is no longer acceptable. Either use both a masculine and a feminine pronoun as in the first revision or change the noun to plural and use a plural pronoun as in the second revision. Stylistically, pluralizing is preferable.

    Exercise 3

    1. For each sentence, fill in the blank with an appropriate pronoun(s) and circle the antecedent.

    • Everybody heard us sing _______________ version.
    • The pit crew did _______________ job like clockwork.
    • A small child should not be left to fend for _______________.
    • Beagles and Labradors often show off _______________ natural hunting tendencies.
    • Allie and Bethany are planning to help _______________ with their projects.
    • Ask each student to upload _______________ papers into the drop box.
    • Anyone can get _______________ transcripts by filling out the proper form.

    2. Paying attention to the world around you, find at least five examples of pronoun/antecedent errors. Show the error and explain why it is a problem.

    3. Use each of these pronouns in a sentence with an antecedent: their, they, he, her, and it.

    4. Rewrite the following sentences to eliminate the pronoun/antecedent agreement problems:

    • Ask any teacher and they will tell you that their students aren’t thinking of anything but spring break.
    • I don’t know when this letter or the five letters I received last week were written since there is no date on it.
    • Everyone should look at his own form and make sure they are completed correctly.

    Exercise 4

    1. Edit the following paragraph by correcting pronoun agreement errors in number and person. Then check your work by submitting to Grammarly.

    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!

    2. Complete this online exercise.


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    Identifying Pronoun Problems Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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