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Pronouns:  Personal Pronouns

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Personal pronouns take the place of nouns that refer to people, places, and things.  Pronoun usage is one of the top ten problems beginning college writers struggle with because they primarily use the pronouns I, you, and they as the subjects of their sentences in normal conversation.  However, in written texts, the overuse of pronouns without combining them with the nouns they refer back to causes vague sentences and students’ written ideas to become unclear.  This handout is designed to help you understand that the primary function of the pronoun as a part of speech is to help in avoiding the overuse of nouns, not to replace nouns altogether.

General Rules for Pronoun Usage

The noun that a pronoun refers back to, or replaces, is called an antecedent.  A noun is a person, place, or a thing and, most often, the subject or object of your sentences.

      Jane wrote the essay.

In the example above, Jane is the subject of the sentence and the essay is the object of the sentence.  Look at the sentence below.  Notice that Jane is replaced with the appropriate pronoun, she.

      She wrote the essay.

Now, in the example below, both the subject and the object of the sentence have been replaced with the appropriate pronoun.

      She wrote it.

Because a pronoun replaces its antecedent, you must use a pronoun that agrees with its antecedent in person, number, and gender

SingularI, me, you, she, her, he, him, it

Pluralwe, us, you, they, them

Pronouns and nouns must agree in person.  This means that you cannot begin writing a sentence in one person and finish it in another.  For example, if you begin a sentence using the third person (he, she, or it), you cannot finish your sentence using the second person (you).  To help clarify this concept, take a look at the examples below.  

      A)  When a student writes an essay, you should always begin by brainstorming ideas.

      B)  When a student writes an essay, she should always begin by brainstorming ideas.

In example A), the antecedent, a student, is a third-person noun while the pronoun, you, is a second-person pronoun; therefore, the antecedent and pronoun in this example do not agree.  However, in example B), again, the antecedent is the third-person noun, a student, but the pronoun is the third-person pronoun, she.  Here the antecedent and the pronoun are in agreement.  Pronouns and antecedents also must to agree in gender.

      Jane wrote the essay quickly because it is due tomorrow.

Because the essay is a singular noun and a genderless (not male or female) object or thing, it is the correct pronoun.  However, look at the example below. 

      Jane wrote the essay quickly because she forgot about it.

Above, you notice that the noun, Jane, agrees with the pronoun, she, while the essay agrees with it.  Your readers’ eyes will automatically see your pronouns as referring back to the last noun that agrees in gender and number; therefore, if you have multiple nouns in a sentence, make sure the antecedent of your pronoun is clear.  The pronoun-antecedent agreement in the above in the above sentence is clear; however, in the following sentence, for example, the antecedent of it is unclear because it could refer to either the dog or the essay.

      A)  The dog ate the essay, and it was very bad.

      B)  The dog at the essay, and he was very bad.

The reader might automatically interpret sentence A) as stating the essay was very bad instead of the dog.  If the writer is actually referring to the dog as very bad as in sentence B), it should be replaced with either he or she depending upon the actual gender of the dog.  In addition to agreeing with its antecedent in person and gender, pronouns and antecedents must also agree in number.  Below, the pronoun does not agree in number.

      If the student receives a bad grade on the paper, they will have to rewrite the essay.

Because the student is singular, the plural pronoun they must also be made singular by being substituted with he or she, depending on the gender of the student. If the student’s sex is unknown, you can write “he or she will have to rewrite the essay.”  If you need more information about gender neutral language, select the link here to review our handout.

    • The professor distributed the assignment prompt.  She explained the objectives clearly.

Above, she is the pronoun that replaces and refers back to the noun the professor to avoid repetition.

Style Matters:

You can, and should, use pronouns to avoid the unnecessary repetition of nouns, but remember that pronouns are effective only when they are used to avoid unnecessary repetition not when they are used repeatedly as the subjects and objects of your sentences. Pronouns can become a source of confusion if you use them repeatedly or use one when repeating a noun is necessary to make your meaning clear.  In the sentence below, the pronoun they is ambiguous. Can you figure out who they are?

            Because childhood obesity is a health risk, they should offer children healthier snacks.

In order for your reader to figure out who they refers to in the sentence above, a clearly identified antecedent needs to be present in a sentence preceding it.  Without one, your reader will never figure out who they actually are.

Now, take a minute to look at the piece of writing you are currently working on.  Circle all of the personal pronouns.  Are any of them vague?  Do they all have antecedents and agree in person, gender and number?  Do you have a good mixture of nouns and pronouns so that you are not unnecessarily repeating either one?

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This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.

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