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Pronouns: Writing Skills Success Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Exercises for this concept can be found at Pronouns: Writing Skills Success Practice Exercises.

The words of the world want to make sentences.

—Gaston Bachelard, French philosopher (1884–1962)

Lesson Summary

Pronouns are so often misused in speech that many people don't really know how to avoid pronoun errors in writing. This lesson shows you how to avoid the most common ones.

A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun. Misused pronouns call attention to themselves and detract from the message of a piece of writing. This lesson explains the basic principles of pronoun use and highlights the most common pronoun problems: agreement, case, noun-pronoun pairs, incomplete constructions, ambiguous pronoun references, and reflexive pronouns.

Pronouns and Antecedents

The noun represented by a pronoun is called its antecedent. The prefix ante- means to come before. Usually, the antecedent comes before the pronoun in a sentence. In the following examples, the pronouns are italicized and the antecedents (the words they represent) are underlined.

The government workers received their paychecks.
Jane thought she saw the missing boy and reported him to the police.
The shift supervisor hates these accidents because he thinks they can be easily avoided.

A pronoun must match the number of its antecedent. In other words, if the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must also be singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must also be plural. Few people make mistakes when matching a pronoun with a noun antecedent. However, sometimes a pronoun is the antecedent for another pronoun. Indefinite pronoun antecedents frequently result in a number mismatch between pronoun and antecedent.  Here is the list for singular pronouns.

each anyone nobody
either everybody one
neither everyone somebody
anybody no one someone
  • A pronoun with one of the words from this list as its antecedent must be singular.
      Each (singular) of the men brought his (singular) favorite snack to the picnic.
      Everyone (singular) who wants to be in the "Toughman" contest should pay up his (singular) life insurance.
      Somebody left her purse underneath the desk.
      Neither of the occupants could locate his or her key to the apartment.
  • If two or more singular nouns or pronouns are joined by and, use a plural pronoun.
      Buddha and Muhammad built religions around their philosophies.
      If he and she want to know where I was, they should ask me.
  • If two or more singular nouns or pronouns are joined by or, use a singular pronoun.
      Matthew or Jacob will loan you his calculator.
      The elephant or the moose will furiously protect its young.
  • If a singular and a plural noun or pronoun are joined by or, the pronoun agrees with the closest noun or pronoun it represents.
      Neither the soldiers nor the sergeant was sure of his location.
      Neither the sergeant nor the soldiers were sure of their location.
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