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Keeping our pronouns in line


Like it or not, there are some rules, or at least conventions, that we must adhere to when writing. And one of these concerns pronouns.

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns, and antecedents are the nouns they stand in for. We use pronouns all the time, and if we didn’t, our language would be very awkward. Consider the following sentence that doesn’t use any pronouns.

Donavan gave Donavan’s dog the dog’s bath.

Now let’s add our pronouns.

Donavan gave his dog its bath.

In this last sentence “his” is a pronoun that stands in for “Donavan” (the antecedent of his), and “its” is a pronoun that stands in for “dog” (the antecedent of its).

We can use pronouns to do any of the following:

  • To name a specific person or thing: “You look like him.”
  • To point to non-specific people or things: “Everyone enjoyed the party, but nobody remembered to thank the hostess.”
  • To point to something: “This is the car I want.”
  • To refer back to the subject: “Baley hurt herself.”
  • To show mutual action: “Jeremy and Shawn were wrestling and hurt each other.”
  • To add emphasis: “I myself love pronouns.”

Here are four common problems we encounter using pronouns:

  1. Pronoun-antecedent agreement
  2. Antecedent confusion
  3. Personal pronoun case
  4. Choosing that or which (or who)

a. Pronoun-antecedent agreement

The rule is simple and fairly well understood; a singular antecedent must have a singular pronoun and a plural antecedent must have a plural pronoun.

The engineer finished his report.

The engineers finished their reports.

This is fairly straight forward, until we encounter indefinite pronouns, generic nouns, or collective nouns.

Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person or thing. Even though indefinite pronouns appear to be plural but we should treat them as singular. Indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, somebody, someone and something.

In this class everyone works at his or her own pace.

Generic nouns represent a typical member of a group, not the group itself. For this reason, generic nouns are singular even though they may appear plural.

Every accountant must be good at math if he or she wants to succeed.

Collective nouns name a group of things, animals, or people. Although you could count the individual members of the group named by a collective noun, the noun is usually considered singular since it refers to the group as a whole. Collective nouns include audience, committee, company, crowd, department, family, government, public, and team.

The department has made its decision about the budget.

However, this only works if the collective noun acts as a single unit. If the members of the collective noun act individually, we use the plural.

The audience clapped its hand after the performance.

The audience doesn’t own a big collective hand, so we have to use the plural. But then we have: “The audience clapped their hands after the performance,” which is still at best awkward. So we would add “members” to this sentence to give us a clearly plural subject.

The members of the audience clapped their hands after the performance.

To sum up:

  • Collective nouns performing one action as a unit, or possessing an item belonging to the entire group, are singular and required singular pronouns.
  • If the members of the collective noun act as individuals, add a plural subject like “members” and use a plural pronoun.
  • Body parts always belong to individuals, not to a group.

b. Pronoun-Antecedent confusion

Every pronoun must have an antecedent, and the antecedent must be obvious. We don’t want our readers to guess or to spend time trying to figure out what the antecedent might be. We run into trouble when the antecedent is ambiguous, or when our reference to an antecedent is vague or implied.

Ambiguous antecedents occur when we have more than one noun that our pronoun could refer to.

The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. It was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.

In the second sentence “it” is a pronoun; an important pronoun because it is the subject of this sentence. But what is the antecedent of “it?” Because of the context of these two sentences, we can figure out that the antecedent must be “the room,” however, according to the last antecedent rule it should actually be the lone light bulb.

The last antecedent rule is used to interpret contracts and other legally binding documents. This rule states:

Referential and qualifying phrases, where no contrary intention appears, refer solely to the last antecedent.

To correct our sentence, we should repeat the noun in the second sentence. And then possibly rewrite the whole thing to avoid beginning all sentences with “the room.”

The room contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb. The room was twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide.

The room, twenty-six feet long by seventeen feet wide, contained a chair, a desk, and a lone light bulb.

Vague or implied antecedents occur when our pronoun does not refer to a specific pronoun, but rather a group of vague words or ideas. Sometime the actual antecedent is not even mentioned. This leaves our readers guessing what the antecedent might be.

Here at work they expect us to show initiative.

In this sentence, “they” is a pronoun that does not have a specific antecedent. The preceding sentence may have specifically talked about “managers,” but even so, specifically mentioning the antecedent is preferred.

Here at work, our managers expect us to show initiative.

One other obstacle that can introduce pronoun-antecedent confusion is anticipatory reference. Anticipatory reference occurs when the pronoun come before the antecedent. This forces our readers to remember the idea associated with the pronoun, and then search the remaining sentence for the antecedent. Even worse, the reader may assume that the subject of the previous sentence is the antecedent and misunderstand our meaning.

When reserving a table in the dining room, try to get close to a window. If it’s available, be sure to order the champagne.

We should always make sure the antecedent comes first.

When reserving a table in the dining room, try and get close to a window. If champagne’s available, be sure to order it.

c. Personal pronoun case

Personal pronouns, such as I or me, change their case form according to their grammatical function in the sentence. There are three grammatical functions of personal pronouns, and therefore there are three pronoun cases.

  • When the pronoun is the subject of a clause, we use the subjective case of the pronoun.
  • When the pronoun is the object in a clause, we use the objective case.
  • When the pronoun is marker of possession and defines who owns a particular object or person, we use the possessive case.

Subjective case

Objective case

Possessive case

I

me

my

we

us

our

you

you

your

he/she/t

him/her/it

his/her/its

they

them

their

 

Most of us know this, but we can get confused with complex sentence structures.

At the hearing, the most challenging questions for the panel and I came from the landowner who previously worked at the AESO.

In this sentence, the personal pronoun “I” is the object of “for”, so the correct case is “me.”

At the hearing, the most challenging questions for the panel and me came from the landowner who previously worked at the AESO.

A good way to determine the correct case is to strip away the extra words that clutter up the sentence. Then the correct case should be obvious.

… the most challenging questions for me

d. Choosing that or which (or who)

Choosing which instead of that is probably one of the most common mistakes we make.

That introduces a restrictive clause, a clause that limits or restricts the identity of the subject in some way.

Which introduces a non-restrictive clause, a clause that tell us something interesting or incidental about a subject, but it does not define that subject.

The painting that was hanging in the foyer was stolen.

The painting, which was hanging in the foyer, was stolen.

The first sentence uses the fact that the painting was hanging in the foyer as a way to differentiate the stolen painting from all the others. The second sentence merely adds the fact that the stolen painting was hanging in the foyer. This second sentence implies that there are other paintings hanging in the foyer. If this was the only painting hanging in the foyer, then second sentence would be incorrect.

Once we have introduced an essential clause using that we can add additional information about the subject, essential or nonessential, using which.

The Van Gogh that was hanging in the foyer, which we purchased in 1929 for $10,000, was stolen.

That is a decision which you must live with for the rest of your life.

That is a decision you must live with for the rest of your life.

That versus which versus who

We use that and which for clauses about things, and we use who for clauses about people. Since we only have one choice with who, we use commas to distinguish between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

The suspect in the lineup who has red hair committed the crime.

The suspect in the lineup, who owns a red car, committed the crime.

The first sentence is restrictive and uniquely identifies the guilty person. This sentence requires that there is only one person in the lineup with red hair. The second sentence in non-restrictive and merely informs us that the guilty party owns a red car. To be correct, many of the people in the lineup must or could own a red car.

last updated: June 15, 2013
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