The pronouns frequently pose problems for both speakers and writers. Yet using the proper pronoun is essential to avoid both confusion and miscommunication. In this article, we’ll settle some disagreements, find the right persons, clear up some vague references, and solve some puzzling cases. By the end, you’ll be able to use pronouns—even those tricky indefinite ones— confidently and correctly.
Problems with Agreement
Pronouns must agree in number with the words they refer to (their antecedents). Read this sentence:
- After I saw whom the letters were from, I tossed it in the wastebasket.
The sentence doesn’t make sense because it is the wrong pronoun. Letters is a plural noun, so the pronoun used to replace it should also be plural. To correct the sentence, it must be replaced by the plural pronoun them.
Put another way, the rule is this: If a pronoun is plural, the word it refers to (also known as its antecedent) must be plural; if a pronoun is singular, the word it refers to must be singular.
Problems with Indefinite Pronouns
Anyone, anybody, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, none, no one, one, somebody, something, and someone are all considered to be singular words, so they all require a singular pronoun.
But, if you think about it, the word each (for instance) implies more than one. If each person is doing something, that means more than one, right? The same can be said for everybody, everything, and everyone. This doesn’t matter; all four words are considered singular. So you should write:
- Everybody is seated, and each is waiting for the plane to take off.
- Each of the dogs needs its personalized collar before it can be enrolled in dog obedience school.
A common tendency in everyday speech is to use they or their in place of some singular pronouns. In the first example, you might hear the sentence spoken this way:
- Everybody is seated, and they are waiting for the plane to take off.
This usage is called the “singular they” because they refers to an antecedent that’s singular.
An Exception to the Rule: Remember the rule that says to disregard any prepositional phrase when you’re looking for the subject of a sentence? Take a look at these two sentences:
- All of the money is missing from the safe.
- All of the cookies are missing from the jar.
In both sentences, the subject is all. But the first sentence has a singular verb and the second sentence has a plural verb—and both are correct.
With five pronouns (all, any, most, none, and some), the “disregard the prepositional phrase” rule doesn’t apply. For those five pronouns, look at the object of the preposition to determine which verb to use. Even though using the “singular they” is becoming more commonplace, its usage is still frowned on in some circles.
However, this may be one of the rules of grammar that eventually changes, as using the “singular they” helps prevent an overuse of his or her or he or she. For example, consider the following paragraph:
- When I came downstairs, everybody in the family was already eating their breakfast, and everyone was engrossed in reading their different sections of the newspaper. Each of them seemed to be in their own little world.
By changing the pronouns to agree in number with their antecedents, you would have:
- When I came downstairs, everybody in the family was already eating his or her breakfast, and everyone was engrossed in reading his or her different sections of the newspaper. Each of them seemed to be in his or her own little world.
While the second version may be grammatically correct, it sure doesn’t read well. One way to avoid this awkwardness is to rewrite the sentences to use plural nouns and pronouns instead of singular ones:
- When I came downstairs, all of my family members were already eating their breakfast. All of them were engrossed in reading their own sections of the newspaper. They seemed to be in their own little world.
Vague Pronoun References
As you recall, pronouns are words that take the place of nouns; antecedents are the nouns that the pronouns refer to. For example:
- Shirley called to say she would be glad to help decorate for the party on Friday.
In this example, the pronoun she clearly refers to a specific noun Shirley (its antecedent). But take a look at this sentence:
- Billy Joe invited Darrell to the ranch because he enjoyed horseback riding.
Well, now. Just whom does the word he in the second part of the sentence refer to— Billy Joe or Darrell? The antecedent of he isn’t clear. To make the sentence read clearly, it should be reworded:
- Because Darrell enjoyed horseback riding, Billy Joe invited him to the ranch. or Billy Joe, who enjoyed horseback riding, invited Darrell to the ranch.
Sometimes a pronoun has no reference at all. Read this sentence:
- Karen was afraid he would not remember to pick up the refreshments for the party.
Just who is he? Unless the man has been identified in an earlier sentence, the reader is left out in the cold about his identity.
Remember that an antecedent has to refer to a specific person, place, or thing. Look at the following sentence.
- The young recording star was elated, but he kept it hidden.
What did the star keep hidden? Was it supposed to refer to the fact that he felt elated? In that case, the sentence would read:
- The young recording star was elated, but he kept elated hidden.
Doesn’t make sense, does it? The word elated can’t be the antecedent of it because elated isn’t a person, place, or thing. The sentence needs to be reworded something like this:
- The young recording star was elated with his hit record, but he kept his feelings hidden.
Along the same lines, sometimes in a sentence there is a noun that the pronoun refers to, but it’s not the right noun; the correct reference is missing from the sentence. Read this sentence:
- After a successful fishing trip with his brothers, Steve let them all go.
The way the sentence is now worded, Steve let his brothers go. That’s what them refers to in the sentence. What the writer actually means is that Steve let all the fish go. The sentence should be rewritten like this:
- After a successful fishing trip with his brothers, Steve let all of their catch go.
Here’s another example of a pronoun that doesn’t refer to the right antecedent:
- The new tax forms arrived today. They want me to fill out every line on the last three pages.
The way this sentence is worded, the tax forms want you to do the filling out. What the writer meant was that the Internal Revenue Service, or an accounting firm, or the office personnel at work—someone the writer had failed to name—wants the tax forms filled out. The sentence needs to be reworded to make it clear who they are.
- The new tax forms arrived today. Our accountant wants me to fill out every line on the last three pages.
Be careful not to use they when you refer to unnamed persons; said another way, they must refer to people you specify. The same holds true for any pronoun, but they, he, she, and it are the ones most commonly misused in this way. If you think that you may have an unclear reference, one way to test the sentence is to do this:
- Find the pronoun.
- Replace the pronoun with its antecedent—the noun it refers to (remember, the noun must be the exact word).
- If the sentence doesn’t make sense, you need to reword your sentence.
Choosing the Right Person
You may have instructions that call for your piece of writing to be written in a particular person—first person, second person, or third person.
First-person pronouns include I, me, my, mine, we, our, and us, and the first-person point of view expresses the personal point of view of the speaker or author (I will bring the book to Jack).
Second-person pronouns include you, your, and yours, and material expressed in the second-person point of view directly addresses the listener or reader (You will bring the book to Jack).
Third-person pronouns include he, she, him, her, his, hers, they, them, their, and theirs. In the third-person point of view, material is expressed from the point of view of a detached writer or other characters (They will bring the book to Jack).
If you’re writing for a class, be sure to check with the instructor to determine if there is a requirement about using first, second, or third person. (Most academic writing must be in the third person.) If you’re writing for a company, check to see if there are particular guidelines about which person you should use. (If you’re still in doubt, use third person.)
Shifts in Person: One of the most common problems in writing comes with a shift in person. The writer begins in either first or third person and then—without reason—shifts to second person. Take, for example, this paragraph:
Even in a casual atmosphere I can be embarrassed by someone else, and this causes you to become tense. For instance, somebody you know can embarrass you at a party or in a class. It’s so simple for a stranger to embarrass you. This can be upsetting, depending on the kind of person you are; it can be hurtful even if you are mentally strong.
The writer begins in the first person (telling about himself or herself by using the pronoun I) and then shifts to second person. The constant use of you sounds as if the writer is preaching directly to the reader. That writer doesn’t know the reader and doesn’t know if he or she can easily be embarrassed by others, and so on.
Except for the beginning sentence, the entire paragraph should be rewritten and put into first person. Here is one way of doing that:
Even in a casual atmosphere I can be embarrassed by someone else, and this causes me to become tense. For instance, somebody I know can embarrass me at a party or in a class. It’s so simple for a stranger to embarrass me. This can be upsetting because of the kind of person I am, and it can be hurtful even if I am mentally strong.
If you begin in third person (which is the most common way of writing), stay in third person. If you begin in first person (the second most common way of writing), stay in first person. If you begin in second person, stay in second person. Consistency is the key.
Using the Second Person: Sometimes you are looking for a more informal tone than third person provides. Something written in second person (using you and your) will have a more conversational tone than writing in first or third person. Take a look at this paragraph:
You’ll need to watch the mixture carefully, and you may have to stir it quite often. When you get to the last step, make sure you add the final three ingredients slowly. If you add them too quickly, the combination will not blend and you’ll have a mess on your hands.
That paragraph is talking directly to you, telling you what to do in your cooking. But look at the same paragraph written in third person:
The mixture must be watched carefully, and it may have to be stirred quite often. At the last step, it is important that the final three ingredients be added slowly. If they are added too quickly, the combination will not blend and a mess will be created.
Now, that’s pretty boring and stilted, isn’t it? The directions are far better if you write them in the second person.
Pronouns are also one of three cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. The way a pronoun is used in the sentence determines which case you should use.
- Subjective pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.
- Objective pronouns include me, you, him, her, it, us, and them. (Note that you and it are included on both lists; you’ll see why later.)
- Possessive pronouns include my, your, his, her, its, our, and their. (Possessive pronouns are regarded as adjectives by some grammarians. These pronouns won’t be discussed in this section because there’s rarely a problem with using them correctly.)
Subjective Pronouns: Subjective pronouns are used as the subjects of sentences (whom or what you’re talking about). Some examples:
- I am going to leave for my appointment.
- She is late already.
- They will never make it on time.
A problem occasionally arises when subjects are compound. You might read, for instance:
- His brothers and him are going to the ball game.
- Margaret, Elizabeth, and me were at the mall for four hours yesterday.
- Me and her see eye-to-eye on lots of things.
These pronouns are used incorrectly. Because the pronouns are used as subjects of the sentence, they should all be in the subjective case: I, you, he, she, it, we, or they. So, the sentences should read:
- His brothers and he are going to the ball game.
- Margaret, Elizabeth, and I were at the mall for four hours yesterday.
- I and she see eye-to-eye on lots of things. (Actually, it’s considered polite to put the other person first, so it’s better to word this sentence like this: She and I see eye-to-eye on lots of things.)
If you’re not sure if you’ve used the right pronoun, try writing or saying the sentence with only one subject. You’d never say:
- Him is going to the ball game. or
- Me was at the mall for four hours yesterday.
Change the pronouns to the ones you’d normally use when there’s just one subject (he and I).
Objective Pronouns: Objective pronouns are used as the objects in sentences. You would say, for instance:
- Terry came to see her last night.
- For the twins’ birthday, Mother gave them several new CDs.
As with compound subjects, problems arise when there are compound objects. People sometimes write or say sentences like this:
- The argument arose last night between Carla and she.
- Please buy a raffle ticket from Nonnie or I.
Again, each pronoun is used incorrectly in these sentences. The pronouns are used as objects here and should all be in the objective case: me, you, him, her, it, us, and them. So, the sentences should read:
- The argument arose last night between Carla and her.
- Please buy a raffle ticket from Nonnie or me.
You can use the same trick that you used for the subjective pronoun problem, but substitute the objective form; that is, write or say the sentence with only one object. You’d never say:
- The argument arose last night between she.
- Please buy a raffle ticket from I.
Since those pronouns sound wrong when they’re by themselves, you know that they’re the wrong case. Change the pronouns to the ones you’d normally say when there is only one object.
So why were you and it on the lists of both subjective and objective pronouns? Because, unlike other pronouns on the lists (I and me, for example), English uses the same form for those two words.
- It was nice to get a surprise in the mail. (It is used as a subject.)
- I got it in the mail. (It is used as an object.)
- You called me at four o’clock? (You is used as a subject.)
- I called you back at five o’clock. (You is used as an object.)
Situations with Than and As
Another problem with pronouns sometimes arises in a sentence with words that are omitted following than or as. Look at the following examples:
- Greg said to Grace, “I always thought Mother liked you more than me.”
- Greg said to Grace, “I always thought Mother liked you more than I.”
When the words that have been omitted after than are restored, the real meaning of the sentences becomes clear:
- Greg said to Grace, “I always thought Mother liked you more than (she liked) me.”
- Greg said to Grace, “I always thought Mother liked you more than I (liked you).” (Either way, Greg seems to be in quite a snit, doesn’t he?)
The same type of confusion can result when words following as have been omitted. For example, someone might say or write something along the lines of:
- My husband finds physics as interesting as me.
This implies that, to the husband, the subject of physics and his wife are of equal interest. Now, look at the correction:
- My husband finds physics as interesting as I (do).
This signifies that both spouses are equally interested in physics—which, one hopes, is the intended meaning here.
By mentally adding the missing verb at the end of a sentence using than or as in this way, you’ll be able to tell which pronoun to use.
Who and Whom
A Different Slant Deciding whether to use who or whom may be the most difficult of all the problems with pronouns. Do you say,
- “The man who I called this morning has already placed an order” or
- “The man whom I called this morning has already placed an order”?
How can you make your mind up between
- “The student who is early will get the best seat” and
- “The student whom is early will get the best seat”?
If you have trouble deciding whether to use who or whom (or whoever or whomever), try the following method.
- First, remember to look only at the clause associated with who or whom. In some sentences, there is only one clause, and that makes finding the right word easy. Often, though, there is more than one clause (an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses).
- Next, scramble the words of the clause (if you have to) so that the words form a statement, not a question.
- Now, substitute either he or him for who or whom. This will tell you whether to use who or whom. Use the mnemonic he = who, him = whom (the final m helps you remember the association).
- Be on the lookout for predicate nominatives. After you scramble the words, if you have a linking verb rather than an action verb, use he (who) instead of him (whom).
Ready to put all this to a test? Try this sentence:
- (Who, Whom) telephoned so late last night?
In this sentence, no scrambling is necessary. You can substitute he and have a perfectly good sentence: He telephoned so late last night. Since you substituted he instead of him (remember that he = who), you know to use who in the original question.
Now, try this example:
- (Who, Whom) were you telephoning so late at night?
Scramble the words to make a statement; then substitute he or him, and you have the statement “You were telephoning him so late at night.” Since you used him in the new sentence, you know to use whom in the original question.
Now, for a trickier example:
- Eugene worried about (who, whom) Eddie would be teamed with in the competition.
This sentence has two clauses, but you’re only concerned with the clause that contains the who/whom question. Take the words after about, scramble them to make a statement, substitute he or him, and you have “Eddie would be teamed with him in the competition.” Since you used him, you would know that the original sentence would use whom (remember the mnemonic him = whom), like this:
- Eugene worried about whom Eddie would be teamed with in the competition.