The All-Important Pronouns Study Guide (page 3)
The All-Important Pronouns
I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork. - PETER DE VRIES (1910–1993) AMERICAN NOVELIST
In this lesson, you'll learn about the proper use of pronouns. Pay particular attention to common pronoun errors that too many writers make.
You are no doubt aware that there are parts of speech, in addition to the big four, that you need to be especially careful about using. This lesson reviews pronouns, some of the most useful and troublesome little parts of speech. If you want your writing to improve, you must pay close attention to the material in this lesson. Using pronouns correctly is one of the sure signs of an accomplished writer. And using pronouns incorrectly immediately signals that you are not a careful or skillful writer. So pay attention!
The proper use of pronouns is a bit complicated, but once you think about them, you'll realize that you use them every day, all the time, without hesitation. The trick is knowing when to use which one of the many pronouns available in our language. A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun or of another pronoun. And the word that the pronoun refers to is called its antecedent.
There are several categories of pronouns. The ones we use most often, and that you need to pay special attention to, are personal pronouns, possessive pronouns, reflexive and intensive pronouns, and interrogative pronouns. Even given all these different types, the function of the pronoun is always about the same: It replaces another word or group of words.
The grammatical function the pronoun serves in a sentence is called its case, which defines whether the pronoun is being used as the subject of the sentence, as the object of another word, or in a possessive or reflexive form.
Personal and Possessive Pronouns
Personal pronouns are the pronouns that you probably use most often. Here's a chart that categorizes their correct forms:
The Correct Use of Personal Pronouns
Here are some sample sentences using pronouns, along with explanations of the grammatical function, or case, in which each pronoun is being used.
- We ate our pizza faster than the kids at the next table ate theirs.
The plural pronoun we is used here as the subject of the sentence; the plural possessive pronoun theirs is used to substitute for the implied words the students' pizza, and is the object of the verb ate.
- Ms. Johnson asked all of them to please sit down and be quiet.
The plural pronoun them is the object of the preposition of and is used to substitute for the implied word students.
- You told me that your bicycle was faster than mine.
You is a singular pronoun used as the subject of the sentence; me is a singular pronoun used as the object of the verb told; your is a possessive pronoun describing who owns the bicycle; and mine is the singular possessive used to explain who owns the bike.
As you can see in these examples, pronouns are extremely useful words. They enable us to communicate quickly, use fewer words, and therefore create less clutter and repetition on the page.
However, personal pronouns are among the most frequently misused words. Why? Probably because speakers (and writers) are being sloppy and not paying attention to the rules they learned in school.
The Proper Use of Emoticons
Emoticons are representations of facial expressions of emotion created by typing a sequence of characters to suggest an expression such as a smile or a frown. If you think about it, emoticons are a kind of pronoun, because they stand for something else. Emoticons were first used as a typing shortcut in the sending of informal e-mails and instant messages, and are perfectly acceptable to use in personal communications. However, they do not belong in formal writing. If used there, they suggest immaturity and lack of seriousness on the part of the writer. It is best not to use emoticons in your published essays, stories, or school papers; instead, save them for more informal conversations with friends.
Using the right personal pronoun is one of the hardest lessons for students and adults alike. Study the chart above carefully until you are sure you know the difference between subjective and objective pronouns. Then, whether you are speaking or writing, try always to consider whether you are using a pronoun as the main subject of the sentence or clause (the person or thing doing the action) or if you are using the pronoun to describe the person or thing having something done or said to them.
Special Reminder: The Linking Verb Rule
When a pronoun functions as the object of a linking verb (any form of the verb to be, for example, is, am, are, was, were, been, can be, will be, should be), you must use the subjective form of the pronoun. This may sound formal and awkward to you, but it is a strict rule, and if you remember to observe this rule, your readers (and listeners) will immediately recognize you as a skilled and educated writer. And that's what you want, right? Here are some correct samples of this usage:
- The best player in the band is he.
- The fans who adore him are you and I.
- The happy manager of the band was she.
A good way to check for accuracy with linking verb sentences is to turn the sentence upside down and see if it sounds right. For example, He is the best player in the band sounds right; and Him is the best player in the band does not sound right.
Reflexive and Intensive Pronouns
You use reflexive and intensive pronouns all the time, even if you don't remember their category names. Here are clear definitions to remind you about them, and to make it easier for you to use these pronouns correctly in the future. Note that they all end in self or selves.
Reflexive pronouns refer to the subject of the sentence and direct the action of the sentence back to the subject. Reflexive pronouns are always essential to the sentence's meaning.
- John Lennon dedicated himself to promoting world peace.
- Yoko Ono joined John and called herself a peace advocate.
Intensive pronouns emphasize another pronoun or noun in the sentence.
- The Beatles themselves wrote all of their own music.
- I myself have always been a devoted fan of Ringo.
If you delete the reflexive pronoun from the sentence, it doesn't make grammatical sense. Intensive pronouns, on the other hand, are not essential to the sentence's meaning.
Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) are fairly easy to use. They demonstrate what you are talking about; they point out a noun. Here are some correct samples:
- This is an easy lesson to learn.
- Those other pronouns are much more difficult to get right.
A common mistake that many writers and speakers make is to double up and add the words here or there. For example, an inexpert writer might make mistakes like these:
- This here lesson is driving me crazy.
- That there assignment is the worst we've ever had.
Be careful not to insert extra words.
The That–Which Confusion
Use the pronoun that when what follows it is essential to your sentence. Use the pronoun which (with a comma in front of it) when the clause it introduces can be deleted from the sentence without destroying its meaning. For example:
- Careful writing that includes correct pronouns is a sign of good education.
- Writing, which is a difficult task, can often be rewarding.
Interrogative Pronouns: Is It Who Or Whom?
There are several interrogative pronouns, and they're easy to spot. (Remember that the word interrogative is related to interrogation, a word you probably know from watching too many detective shows on TV.) Interrogative pronouns ask who and whom. Here are examples of the correct usage of who and whom:
Who is always used as a subject (who replaces he or she).
- Who writes better than I do?
- Your favorite Beatle is who? (Linking verb takes a subject.)
Whom is always used as an object (whom replaces him, her, or them).
- With whom are you going to the concert?
- You gave whom the answers to this week's math homework?
Believe it or not, what you should do right now is go back to the beginning of this lesson and read through it carefully one more time. Pronouns are easily confused, and you will benefit in the long run if you spend an extra few minutes reviewing the pronoun rules. And remember to look back at this lesson whenever you find yourself hesitating about which pronoun to use. Good luck!
Exercises for this concept can be found at The All-Important Pronouns Practice Exercises.
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