Pronouns in English are tricky – perhaps one of the trickiest things to get to grips with – and that applies to both native and non-native English writers.
It’s not so much the pure grammar, which is relatively straightforward. It’s the usage – when to and when not to – and how to ensure they fit into your sentence construction with clear meaning.
This blog looks at both – grammar and usage – and sets out simple guidelines to check against, especially when you’re editing or reviewing your own work.
Back to basics: what is a pronoun? A clue is in the word itself: pro-noun (Latin pro, meaning ‘on behalf of’). The pronoun represents the noun, replaces it. Structurally and functionally it is identical to a noun.
The most common pronouns in English are ‘personal’ – I, me, you, she, her, he, him, it, we, us, they, them.
But the term also encompasses:
- ‘Relative’ pronouns – who, that, which (in a relative clause);
- ‘Reflexive’ pronouns – e.g. myself, herself, himself;
- ‘Possessive’ pronouns – e.g. mine, hers, his;
- ‘Demonstrative’ pronouns – this, that, these, those;
- ‘Reciprocal’ pronouns – each other, one another;
- ‘Interrogative’ pronouns – e.g. who, which, what, whichever (as a direct or indirect question);
- ‘Indefinite’ pronouns – e.g. both, none, no one, anything.
There are subtleties and complexities of both grammar and usage in all these categories; but broadly speaking the principles set out in this blog apply whichever form you are using.
Accordingly the illustrations below use only the simplest and most common form: personal pronouns.
Let’s use a bit of grammatical terminology now. The fact that a pronoun acts – structurally, functionally – as a noun means that, like any other noun, it must agree with its predicate – essentially the verb and anything else that is governed by the pronoun.
A pronoun also needs to agree with its antecedent – the noun or noun phrase that the pronoun is replacing. Turning again to Latin, the antecedent is the thing that goes (cedere) before (ante).
Let’s illustrate these terms with a simple example:
Donald and Melania Trump say they both enjoy playing golf with the VP.
Subject: Donald and Melania Trump
Predicate: say they both enjoy playing golf with the VP
Personal pronoun: they
Indefinite pronoun: both
Antecedent: Donald and Melania Trump
Now I said earlier that the grammar surrounding pronouns is relatively straightforward, more so than the usage. In short, a pronoun has to agree with its predicate in number, and with its antecedent in number and case.
But what do these terms actually mean?
A singular pronoun (e.g. I, he, she, it) takes a singular verb form. The number is one, single, singular.
A plural pronoun (e.g. we, they) takes a plural verb form. The number is more than one, some, many, multiple, plural.
[‘You’ can be either singular (‘you individually’) or plural (‘you both’, ‘you all’). The context – including the form of the verb – often determines which. But not always.]
Donald and Melania Trump say they both enjoy playing golf with the VP. (plural verb) ✓
Donald and Melania Trump say they both enjoys playing golf with the VP. (singular verb) ✗
In this illustration we achieve agreement in number through the correct inflexion of the verb – the way it changes form so that it’s correctly aligned with its subject – so ‘they enjoy‘ not ‘they enjoys‘.
A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number, as well as with its predicate.
Donald and Melania Trump say they both enjoy playing golf with the VP. (plural pronoun) ✓
Donald and Melania Trump say he both enjoy playing golf with the VP. (singular pronoun) ✗
The key in this example is the indefinite pronoun ‘both’, which makes clear the number is plural. Without ‘both’ the second illustration could quite easily take a singular pronoun (he, she, I or you) and still be correct, as long as the verb inflexion correctly followed suit.
Case is a grammatical term which basically indicates whether a pronoun is the subject of the sentence (thus: I, you, he, she, it, we, they) or the object or some other function (thus: me, you, him, her, it, us, them).
In short, the case of the pronoun will usually agree with the case of the antecedent.
Donald and Melania Trump say they both enjoy playing golf with the VP. (subject pronoun) ✓
Donald and Melania Trump say them both enjoy playing golf with the VP. (object pronoun) ✗
In this example the antecedent (Donald and Melania Trump) is the subject, and any pronoun which replaces it must also be a subject pronoun – they rather than them.
I said ‘will usually’ earlier because idiomatic and exceptional examples of case in pronoun usage are all over the place in English, and cause a great deal of controversy and heat. ‘Are you cleverer than I? or ‘Are you cleverer than me?’ is a case in point. [Apologies there for the crude linguistic joke. All I can do on this is promise you a future blog on these subtleties, if I can find the will and some good source material.]
In truth all three of those grammatical elements – if you can see through the technical terminology – are pretty straightforward, and not difficult for most writers of English to get correct.
Pronoun usage, on the other hand, is fraught with pitfalls and repays careful checking.
When editing or self editing it is actually worth reviewing every single instance where you have used a pronoun, systematically, against these pitfalls. Using a ‘find’ function or similar automated process may seem long-winded but will keep you out of pronoun trouble.
There are three elements of pronoun usage in particular which cause problems.
1. Antecedent problems
Typically antecedent usage goes awry in one of three ways.
(i) The sentence ‘forgets’ what the antecedent is, perhaps gets distracted by something in between, and agreement between antecedent and pronoun breaks down.
When Trump took the First Lady golfing, the greens were in good shape, the weather was fine and all was well with the world, so I had a good round.
Logically the pronoun in this sentence is referring back to Trump and the First Lady, so should be ‘they’ not ‘I’. It isn’t grammatically wrong, strictly, but feels like a non sequitur – it doesn’t follow and the meaning isn’t clear.
(ii) There is no antecedent for the pronoun to replace.
It wasn’t at all clear why he did it that way.
Again this is more to do with meaning than grammar. ‘He’ doesn’t refer back to anything else in the given sentence. Faced with this situation you might naturally look back to the previous sentence, or even the one before that, to establish the antecedent. In our illustration we don’t have a previous sentence, and without the prior information ‘he’ doesn’t make sense.
(iii) There is more than one possible antecedent but it is unclear from the context which one the pronoun is replacing.
Trump preferred Troon and the VP preferred Turnberry but after the round he had burgers for tea.
‘He’ could refer to either the President or the VP. Logically, if in doubt, the antecedent defaults to the last noun or noun phrase in the sequence – in this case the VP. But in this context the meaning is so ambiguous that using this ‘sequential’ default logic becomes an unsafe assumption.
It is a common mistake to use pronouns with just a bit too much intensity and enthusiasm, so they end up either crowding each other out or losing meaning or both. Often this results from a well-intended attempt to ensure brevity – pronouns are, after all, usually compact and efficient. The word ‘it’ saves a lot of characters almost regardless of its antecedent.
But clarity always trumps brevity, and the sound of a sentence will often give you a clue as to whether your pronoun use is crowded, unclear or both.
Consider this illustration:
It dawned on Trump before the summit that he might tweet about it; it seemed fine, after all, and it was while he was in transit that it occurred to him: he should just do it!
This sentence is grammatical; and all the uses are ostensibly correct. But the word ‘it’ is unquestionably crowded, even making a guest appearance as an auditory fragment of two other non-pronouns, to add to the crowding. The pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ are also crowded, even though their antecedent (‘Trump’) is clear.
Even in a less extreme scenario than the illustration above, it is possible to over-use pronouns such that they become unclear or repetitive or both.
Alternation and synonyms are excellent stylistic tools to have at your disposal to overcome this tendency. An informal rule you can adopt is never to repeat the same pronoun (or refer to the same antecedent) twice in succession without using a synonym or other full noun at least alternately.
Let’s re-do the illustration above on this basis:
The thought dawned on Trump before the summit that he might tweet about the events of the day; the weather seemed fine, after all, and while the President was on the plane the idea occurred to him: just do it!
And so to the final checklist, which you can keep in mind throughout a self editing or editing process:
- Accuracy: basic grammatical agreement: have you (or the writer) used the right pronoun for the sense, and the right inflexion for any verbs governed by the pronoun?
- Clarity: is the antecedent for each pronoun crystal clear?
- Style: is there any crowding of individual pronouns, either as words in themselves, or with any homophonic sound fragments appearing in other nearby words?