Pronouns: Writing Skills Success Study Guide (page 2)
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)
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.
Most people know when to use I, when to use me, or when to use my. These three pronouns illustrate the three cases of the first-person singular pronoun: nominative (I), objective (me), and possessive (my). The following table shows the cases of all the personal pronouns, both singular and plural.
Nominative case pronouns (those in the first column) are used as subjects or as complements following linking verbs (am, is, are, was, were—any form of be). Nominative case pronouns following a linking verb may sound strange to you because so few people use them correctly.
They left a few minutes early to mail the package. [subject]
I looked all over town for the type of paper you wanted. [subject]
The doctor who removed my appendix was he. [follows a linking verb]
"This is she, or it is I," said Barbara into the phone. [follows a linking verb]
The winners of the sales contest were he and she. [follows a linking verb]
Objective case pronouns (those in the middle column in the table) are used as objects following an action verb or as objects of a preposition.
The help line representative gave him an answer over the phone. [follows an action verb]
Of all these samples, I prefer them. [follows an action verb]
We went to lunch with Sammy and him. [object of the preposition with]
We couldn't tell whether the package was for them or us. [object(s) of the preposition for]
Possessive case pronouns (those in the third column in the table) show ownership. Few English speakers misuse the possessive case pronouns. Most pronoun problems occur with the nominative and objective cases.
Problems with Pronoun Case
A single pronoun in a sentence is easy to use correctly. In fact, most English speakers would readily identify the mistakes in the following sentences.
Me worked on the project with he.
My neighbor gave she a ride to work.
Most people know that Me in the first sentence should be I and that he should be him. They would also know that she in the second sentence should be her. Sucherrors are easy to spot when the pronouns are used alone in a sentence. The problem occurs when a pronoun is used with a noun or another pronoun. See if you can spot the errors in the following sentences.
- The grand marshall rode with Shane and I.
- Donna and me are going to the Civic Center.
- The stage manager spoke to my brother and I.
The errors in these sentences are harder to see than those in the sentences with a single pronoun. If you turn the sentence with two pronouns into two separate sentences, the error becomes very obvious.
- The grand marshall rode with Shane.
- The grand marshall rode with me. (not I)
- Donna is going to the Civic Center. [Use the singular verb is in place of are.]
- I (not me) am going to the Civic Center. [Use the verb am in place of are.]
- The stage manager spoke to my brother.
- The stage manager spoke to me. (not I)
Splitting a sentence in two does not work as well with the preposition between. If you substitute with for between, then the error is easier to spot.
- The problem is between (she, her) and (I, me).
- The problem is with her. (not she)
- The problem is with me. (not I)
Sometimes, a pronoun comes at the end of a sentence following a comparative word such as than or as.
- Harold spent as much time on this project as (they, them).
- Duane can build cabinets better than (I, me).
- The long day exhausted us more than (they, them).
- My youngest child is now taller than (I, me).
In each of these sentences, part of the meaning is implied. To figure out which pronoun is correct, complete the sentence in your head and use the pronoun that makes more sense.
- Harold spent as much time on this project as they did.
- Harold spent as much time on this project as he spent on them.
The first sentence makes more sense, so they would be the correct choice.
- Duane can build cabinets better than I can.
- Duane can build cabinets better than he can build me.
The first sentence makes more sense, so I is the correct pronoun.
- The long day exhausted us more than they did.
- The long day exhausted us more than it did them.
The second sentence makes more sense, so them is the correct choice.
- My youngest child is now taller than I am.
There is no way to complete the sentence using the pronoun me, so I is the correct choice.
Pronoun choice is especially important if the sentence makes sense either way. The following sentence can be completed using both pronouns, either of which makes good sense. The pronoun choice controls the meaning. The writer must be careful to choose the correct pronoun if the meaning is to be accurately portrayed.
- I work with Assad more than (she, her).
- I work with Assad more than she does.
- I work with Assad more than I work with her.
Use the pronoun that portrays the intended meaning.
Sometimes, a noun is immediately followed by a pronoun in a sentence. To make certain you use the correct pronoun, delete the noun from the pair. Look at the following examples to see how this is done.
Ambiguous Pronoun References
Sometimes, a sentence is written in such a way that a pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent. When this happens, the meaning is ambiguous. In the following examples, the ambiguous pronouns are italicized, and the possible antecedents are underlined.
- When Eric spoke to his girlfriend's father, he was very polite.
- Remove the door from the frame and paint it.
- Jamie told Linda she should be ready to go within an hour.
- Pat told Craig he had been granted an interview.
See how the sentences are rewritten below to clarify the ambiguous references.
- Eric was very polite when he spoke to his girlfriend's father.
- Paint the door after removing it from the frame.
- Jamie told Linda to be ready to go within an hour.
- Pat told Craig that Craig had been granted an interview.
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