Pronouns

Pronouns

Click here to download a PDF of this lesson.

Pronouns are a small class of words that substitute for a noun or refer to a nearby noun. Pronouns cannot be preceded by articles or determiners. Using pronouns greatly helps with concision and clarity.

  • Example without pronouns: Long-Solis and Vargas explain that corn is not just used as an ingredient. Long-Solis and Vargas show how corn is considered a blessing or holy because of the value corn has.
  • Example with pronouns: Long-Solis and Vargas explain that corn is not just used as an ingredient. They show how corn is considered a blessing or holy because of the value it has.

 

 

Click each box below to learn more about pronouns and common difficulties in using them

Pronoun use

The previous example illustrates one of the main uses of pronouns—to refer to an antecedent. An antecedent is the word(s) in a nearby phrase that the pronoun logically stands for as shorthand. In other words, the pronoun gets its meaning based on the antecedent it is matched to (“they” refers to “Long-Solis and Vargas” in this example, but in other sentences, they would refer to something else). The antecedent often comes before the pronoun in the sentence, but not necessarily. Regardless of where the antecedent is, what a pronoun refers to must be obvious to the reader. If you’re unsure, ask yourself what a pronoun means to check if there is a clear antecedent.

  • Example: After they show how corn is considered a blessing or holy, Long-Solis and Vargas explain the value it has.

The other main use of pronouns doesn’t require an antecedent. Words like I, you, this, and that get their meaning from context but not necessarily from a prior noun phrase.

  • Example: Because we are all affected by the college ranking system, our decisions for college sometimes might not be what we actually want.

Pronoun types

There are numerous types of pronouns: personal, reciprocal, demonstrative, relative, interrogative, and indefinite/quantifier. The following chart illustrates the first type of pronoun, as personal pronouns are the only type to have different inflectional forms for case (subject, object, possessive, reflexive), number (singular, plural), and gender (masculine, feminine, neutral).

Personal

Number Person Gender Subject Object Possessive Reflective
SINGULAR First   I me mine myself
  Second   you you yours yourself
  Third

Masculine

Feminine

Neutral

he

she

it

him

her

it

his

hers

Ø

himself

herself

itself

PLURAL     we us ours ourselves
      you you yours yourselves
      they them theirs themselves

You may have noticed that the words my, your, his, her, its, our, and their were not included in the chart above in the possessives column. While these words are possessives and may look like pronouns, they are technically not pronouns, but rather determiners. Determiners, like articles, precede nouns while pronouns replace them.

  • Example of determiner: Although financial aid helps me cover my tuition, I still feel worried about the cost of college at UC Davis. (The determiner “my” precedes the noun “tuition,” like the word the would do.)
  • Example of pronoun: Although my friends’ tuition is paid by their parents, financial aid helps me cover mine. (The pronoun “mine” replaces the noun phrase “my tuition.”)

When using the reflexive form, note that there are two different meanings: complement and emphatic. The reflexive pronoun is a complement when the sentence requires an object and the subject and object refer to the same person/thing. The emphatic use of the reflexive pronoun is optional; it adds clarity to emphasize whom the verb applies to, but the grammar doesn’t require the pronoun to be there.

  • Example (complement): I suppose that Vanessa’s mom saw herself in her daughter. (Vanessa’s mom needed to see something, so the word “herself” is required. If the form were her instead of herself, the reader would think that her referred to a different woman, not Vanessa’s mom.)
  • Example (emphatic): Making tough choices helps students stay in college because by making the tough choices themselves, the students are more likely to succeed. (The sentence sounds fine without the word “themselves”; it is not obligatory. However, its use helps emphasize that the students are making their own choices.) Although this and other emphatic examples don’t replace a noun, they do refer to a noun and have an antecedent.

Unlike the personal pronouns, the other pronoun types have a single form that doesn’t vary by person or gender.

Reciprocal

(each other, one another [both singular]). Both of these pronouns mean the same thing. Similar to the reflexive pronouns, reciprocal pronouns are also used when the subject and object refer to the same person/thing. But here, the action is done among participants in a category. Thus, the noun that the pronoun refers to is always plural.

  • Example: Letting colleges rank each other would lead to a biased result because colleges do not know anything about the others, and they also compete against one another.

Demonstrative

(this [singular], these [plural of this], that [singular], those [plural of that]). These words can occur as both pronouns and determiners, similar to the case of mine vs. my above. However, with the demonstratives, their pronoun and determiner forms look identical.

  • Example of determiner: This experience made me realize the inevitable truth of unjust behavior affecting minorities first hand in today’s society. (The determiner “this” precedes the noun “experience,” like the word the would do.)
  • Example of pronoun: This made me realize the inevitable truth of unjust behavior affecting minorities first hand in today’s society. (The pronoun “this” replaces the noun phrase “this experience.”)  

Relative

(who, whom, whose, which, that [don’t vary by number]). Relative pronouns are used to make relative clauses. Like the personal pronouns, they have different case forms (subject, object, possessive). See the Relative Clause chapter for more information.

  • Example: Amanda, who works at an old Christian church, is a senior nun.

Interrogative (who, whom, whose, which, what [don’t vary by number]). Interrogative words introduce questions. You can see above that the first four of the five interrogative pronouns also function as relative pronouns.

  • Example: What do you expect your life will be in college?

Indefinite/Quantifier

(some, someone, somebody, something, any, anyone, anybody, anything, none, no one, nobody, nothing, each, everyone, everybody, everything, both, all, much, many, most, more, several, others, enough, few, less, little, either, neither). Indefinite/quantifier pronouns have a non-specific meaning and/or indicate amounts. The above pronouns ending in -one, -body, and -thing are singular. The Subject Verb Agreement chapter lists whether the other pronouns are singular, plural, or either.

  • Example: In this section, the writers include information to build upon their knowledge of chemistry. There isn’t any left out as every classification is important. (The pronoun “any” is singular because it replaces the singular noun “information.”)

Who vs. whom

The distinction between who and whom is often difficult to notice because whom often gets replaced with who in spoken English. The same pattern is true for whoever replacing whomever. Many English speakers overuse who in place of whom without realizing it but will deem it incorrect when whom is overused. If you are writing formally and want to correctly use who vs. whom, note that who is the subject form while whom is the object form. To see additional sentences with who and whom, check out the Relative Clause chapter.

A simple test can determine whether who/whoever or whom/whomever is correct: look to see what word follows. If a verb follows, then use who/whoever. If a noun follows, then use whom/whomever.

  • Example: The school should consider the majority of the students who are healthy and don't need other people to force them to get active. (“who” is correct because a verb follows)
  • Example: The school should consider the majority of the students whom other people unnecessarily force to get active. (“whom” is correct because a noun follows)

Incidentally, this test works for any subject vs. object pair from the chart above, including I vs. me.

I vs. me

In standard, formal English, I is a subject pronoun and me is an object pronoun. That means that sentences like “Two girls who were sitting next to us might have understood my friend and I” are incorrect because the first person pronoun (“I”) is the object of the verb “understood,” thus “I” needs to be “me.” The difference between I and me is the same difference as with the other subject and object personal pronouns from the chart above (he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them).

An easy test to check the pronoun form within a phrase is to remove the noun so you’re left with just the pronoun.

  • Example: *Two girls who were sitting next to us might have understood my friend and I.
  • Test: *Two girls who were sitting next to us might have understood I.
  • Revision: Two girls who were sitting next to us might have understood my friend and me.

While following the above rule and test will ensure that your writing follows academic English conventions, you may notice that not everyone applies this rule in spoken, conversational English. It is common to hear utterances like “Two girls might have understood my friend and I” and “My friends and me were gossiping in Japanese.” Just note that these are different varieties of English, following different pronoun rules.

Agreement and consistency

Pronoun confusion can occur when a pronoun does not match its antecedent in person, number, and/or gender or when there are multiple pronouns/nouns in a single sentence and the reader loses track of what the pronouns refer to. When the antecedent is singular, the pronoun should be singular; when the antecedent is plural, the pronoun should be plural. You may hear inconsistent pronouns in speech, but in writing our goal is to be especially clear and logical, so pronouns should clearly match the noun they refer to. Additionally, if a pronoun’s antecedent is unclear, rearrange the sentence, opt for the noun instead of the pronoun, or remove the pronoun altogether. The following sentence demonstrates an unclear pronoun reference with use of it. The only singular noun is “public opinion,” but it doesn’t make sense logically for public opinion to be a type of civil participation. If “it” refers to “philanthropic associations” instead, then the pronoun should be revised to be “they” or removed.

  • Illogical example: Only the philanthropic associations were successful in public opinion and that is because it was “a type of civil participation, though often self-generated, embodying the same values and devotion to hierarchy as the regime” (Engelstein 72).
  • Revised example to show agreement: Only the philanthropic associations were successful in public opinion and that is because they were “a type of civil participation, though often self-generated, embodying the same values and devotion to hierarchy as the regime” (Engelstein 72).
  • Revised example to remove pronoun: Public opinion considered only philanthropic associations successful as “a type of civil participation, though often self-generated, embodying the same values and devotion to hierarchy as the regime” (Engelstein 72).

In the next example, the pronoun matches the noun in number but needs to be revised to match the noun in person.We” is a first person pronoun, but the noun “students” is third person.

  • Illogical example: Every time students have questions or doubts, we ask after the lecturer finishes.
  • Revised example: Every time students have questions or doubts, they ask after the lecturer finishes.

Singular they

One common difficulty with pronoun agreement is the lack of a singular, generic, non-gendered English pronoun to refer to people. In informal writing, and certainly in speaking, singular they/them/theirs is often used. But in formal writing, using singular they has usually been deemed incorrect:

  • “Incorrect” example: I feel that if a student makes the “tough choices,” they will learn how to make the right decisions for their education.

This once-strict rule is slowly changing, and style manuals are starting to accept singular they in writing. In 2017, style guides such as the Associate Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style revised their rules but still treat generic they as different than non-gendered they. Generic they is exemplified above; this is when the subject is not named (like “a student,” or “someone”). These style guides allow for generic they if it’s unavoidable but still recommend revising the sentence. Traditional revisions methods would change the pronoun to he, she, he/she, or s/he. But most preferable is to make the antecedent plural (“If students make the ‘tough choices,’ they will learn…”) or take out the pronoun altogether because these options avoid gendered pronouns that are not inclusive.

This issue of non-inclusive gendered pronouns is what motivates a different rule for non-gendered they. Some individuals prefer they/them/theirs as their personal pronouns precisely because these words don’t denote gender, and a binary gender at that. In these situations, style manuals advocate for following people’s preferred pronouns. Click this link to learn more about preferred uses: http://lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/educated/pronouns.html

  • Example: I feel that if Sam makes the “tough choices,” they will learn how to make the right decisions for their education. (In this example, Sam prefers they/them/theirs pronouns and determiners).

It

As we’ve already established, it is the third person singular neutral personal pronoun. Some confusion often arises between its (possessive determiner) and it’s (contraction). See the Apostrophes chapter for a fuller explanation.

Sometimes it acts as a dummy subject, which is a pronoun that needs to be there because sentences require something in that place, but it is not the logical subject. Common academic phrases that use dummy it are it is likely…, it is necessary…, and it is logical….

  • Incorrect example: The publication uses the difference of color and arrangement for different kinds of writings so that readers can easier to identify the particular category of the writings while they are reading. (This sentence is incorrect because people can’t be easy, unless you’re using a different, colloquial meaning of “easy.” If you’re unsure, check a dictionary to see which adjectives can logically describe which nouns.)
  • Revision: The publication uses the difference of color and arrangement for different kinds of writing so that it is easier for readers to identify the particular category of the writings while they are reading.

While grammatical, the dummy it phrase can often be revised for concision. Ask yourself if the phrase is adding any necessary meaning to your sentence.

  • Example: It is commonly believed that good grades make some college international students become more successful than others.
  • Revision: Good grades presumably make some college international students become more successful than others.

Sentences with question word order

Question words, including the interrogative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which), begin questions.

  • Example: What is a hybrid automobile?

In academic writing, it can be helpful to embed a simple question within a larger declarative sentence because presenting a question as a statement is more formal in tone.

  • Incorrect example: I want to learn more about what is a hybrid automobile.
  • Revision: I want to learn more about what a hybrid automobile is.

Note that the first example is dispreferred in academic English because the question word order remains. The second example rearranges the word order to fit a sentence word order.

When a question lacks a question word (and uses a helping verb instead to begin the question), inserting the words if or whether can help convert the question into a statement.

  • Example: Should all schoolchildren in the state be vaccinated in order to attend school?
  • Revision: According to an article in the Davis newspaper by Judy Lin, there’s a big debate about if schoolchildren should be vaccinated in order to attend school.