Pronouns
All the pronouns: 
-- subject
-- object
--possessive adjectives
--
possessive pronouns

Pronouns are those little words that replace nouns so we don't have to use the same noun over and over.  You can see the problems we would have without pronouns.  Here's an example:  Joe took Joe's car over to Joe's mechanic, but the mechanic told Joe the mechanic didn't have time to look at Joe's car.

People who grew up speaking English have only a few problems with pronouns in their writing.  Those problems tend to be consistent across the board.  So let's start with the most common problems and work down the list.

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Plural pronouns for singular antecedents:

 

When we speak, we use pronouns that aren't right for writing.  It sounds natural to say, "Everybody has their own ideas."  But the grammar rules demand that you use the right pronoun for its antecedent (that's the word the pronoun is referring to.)  "Everybody" is singular.  The rule is -- A pronoun is supposed to be the same number as its antecedent. 

It's understandable why we do it.  We think of "everybody" as being a lot of people.  Same with "everyone."  It's kind of a weird quirk of the language that a word like that has a plural idea but is a singular word, grammatically. 

Even when we use an antecedent like "someone," which doesn't seem like a lot of people, we still don't want to deal with whether that person is male or female.  The only way we can be nonsexist in one word is using the plural -- their.

The proper solution is using "his or her" instead of "their" for an antecedent like "everybody."  Everybody has his or her ideas.  However, it gets complicated and even if you remember to use "his or her" the first time, later on when you refer to the same person, you'll forget.  Don't believe me?  Try fixing this sentence:  Everybody has their ideas about how they should deal with their spouse when they and their spouse first have an argument.  First they get defensive and yell.  Then they clam up.

Is this what you came up with?  Everybody has his or her ideas about how he or she should deal with his or her spouse when he or she and his or her spouse first have an argument.  First he or she gets defensive and yells.  Then he or she clams up.  Ick! 

Another problem with this usage is it's still sexist (did you notice the male pronoun is always first?) So you could alternate "his and her" with "her and his," but that sounds weird and awkward, even more so than using "his and her" all the time. 

The best solution I have found is to choose a better antecedent than "everybody" and make it plural.  "All married people" would be great for the above example.  Then you can use "their" all you want.   All married people have their ideas about how they should deal with their spouse when they and their spouse first have an argument.  First they get defensive and yell.  Then they clam up.

So instead of writing "A doctor needs many years of extra education to get his or her degree" you can write "Doctors need many years of extra education to get their degree." 

But what if nothing else but a singular antecedent will do?  When I had my first child, I remember getting a newsletter called "Your Child" every month.  In that newsletter, the writers describe where "your child" should be in mental, physical, and emotional development.  Normally with babies, we do have an option of using "it" -- that is, until we find out the baby's gender.   (Excuse me, is it a girl or a boy?)  But the writers of this newsletter couldn't do that.  How weird would that be?  Your child should be able to recognize faces.  It should be playing with its fingers, looking at them, etc.  Instead, the writers alternated between the female pronoun and the male pronoun, sticking with each one for a paragraph.   It was a workable situation and didn't sound too awkward.  My child was a boy for one paragraph and a girl for the next.  It was okay.  I could deal.

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Pronouns with NO antecedents:

This is just sloppy writing.  Most of the time, it's using they when they haven't been identified.  It's like that paranoid phrase, They are after me.  Who's they?  Here's an example of the most typical usage:  At Wal-Mart, they are having a sale.  See, the problem with this is we assume the writer means Wal-Mart is having a sale, but it really could mean the Girl Scouts are having a sale at Wal-Mart.  It's unclear.  So check your "they's" and make sure they really do follow a plural antecedent. 

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Possessive pronouns versus contracted pronouns:

Okay, what in the world does that mean?  Well, this problem may be considered a spelling issue.  It's the problem between its and it's, your and you're, and their and they're.  One way to remember which one to use is the rule that possessive pronouns (the ones that show ownership) do NOT use an apostrophe.  (Only NOUNS use 's to indicate ownership.)  Here are all the possessive pronouns:  my, your, his, her, our, their.  See, not a single apostrophe in there! 

If a pronoun has an apostrophe, it's a contraction, really two words that have been reduced to one.  Here is a list of several contracted pronouns:  I've, he's, you're, it's, they're, I'm, we're, she'll, he'd.  Every time you see an apostrophe attached to a pronoun, think of it as TWO words.  I have, he is, you are, it is, they are, I am, we are, she will, he would.

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Pronoun case:

This issue usually comes up when you have a multiple subject or object, and at least one of those is a pronoun.  You know what I mean -- like when my husband said as a kid, "Me and George are going to town," and his teacher corrected him by saying, "George and I, George and I."  So, now he uses that structure for every situation in which he and George are participants -- even when it's wrong! 

I've heard politicians even and other well-educated people screw up on this one.  They say, "Between you and I, that's a joke."  Or "The police told my husband and I . . ."  How do you know which pronoun is right:  I or me? The solution is very simple.  Take out the second part and check the sentence with just the pronoun.  If it sounds right, it is.  If it sounds wrong, it is.

Let's try it: 

The sentence: The try: The verdict:
The police told my husband and I that . . . The police told I that . . .? Ick.
The police told my husband and me that . . . The police told me that . . ? Good. 
The result:  The police told my husband and me that . .    

Even if you have two pronouns, you can do it -- one at a time.

The sentence: The try: The verdict:
The letter was from him/he to I/me. The letter was to I? Ick
The letter was from him/he to I/me. The letter was to me? Good. 
The letter was from him/he to I/me. The letter was from him? Good. 
The letter was from him/he to I/me. The letter was from he? Ick
The result:  The letter was from him to me.    

Let's try another one.

The sentence: The try: The verdict:
He/him and I/me got married in Las Vegas. I got married in Las Vegas? Good. 
He/him and I/me got married in Las Vegas. Me got married in Las Vegas? Ick
He/him and I/me got married in Las Vegas. He got married in Las Vegas? Good. 
He/him and I/me got married in Las Vegas. Him got married in Las Vegas? Ick
The result:  He and I got married in Las Vegas.    
 Easy, huh?

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Pronoun case:  (in comparisons)
Case issues also come up with comparisons.  We tend to say things like "He is older than me."  This is illegal by grammatical rules.  I think we do it, though, because we are not used to ending a sentence with a subject pronoun (the subject meaning there's a verb that follows it!) 

When you compare, expand your comparison by making it into two sentences (SVs) and see which pronoun works.

He is older than I am old.   So what you should really be saying is He is older than I.  Okay, if that seems really weird to you, then just say He is older than I am.

That aging gentleman is stronger than they are strong. > That aging gentleman is stronger than they.

Doing the tax returns took me more time than (he/him?) > Doing the tax returns took me more time than it took him. > Doing the tax returns took me more time than him.

Here's an example of why it's so important to get it right.  Sometimes either pronoun can be correct, depending on what you want to compare.  It tells what you are comparing.

Ellen loves him more than me. (Expanded:  Ellen loves him more than she loves me.)
Ellen loves him more than I. 
(Expanded:  Ellen loves him more than I love him.)

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Pronoun case:  (subject predicate)
This is not a problem most people have because they pretty much avoid the situation! 

Let's say you knock on a friend's door, and the friend calls from within, "Who is it?"  What do you say?

I'd probably say, "It's Connie."  If I wanted to use a pronoun, knowing my friend would recognize my voice, I'd probably say, "It's me."  This is, technically, a grammatical faux pas (that means mistake).  Whenever the main verb is a variation of is, whatever noun follows it is the subject also!

Let's check it out.  That man is my husband. = My husband is that man.

That little rule means when I'm answering who it is at the door, I would have to say, "It is I."

The problem with following the rule in this situation is you are tagged immediately as an English teacher or some kind of grammarian because absolutely no one else follows the rule, at least not in casual conversation.

I remember watching Mr. Roger's Neighborhood once when my son was very young.  Mr. Rogers was waiting for a friend.  There came a knock at the door, and Mr. Rogers said, "Oh.  That must be he!"

I cringed.  It just sounded so strange.  Even though I knew it was correct grammatically.

There are times when you might want to actually take advantage of the structure, however.  It sounds poetic and sometimes powerful.  It was I who waited at home for you.  It was I who nursed you through sickness and health.  And it is I who has had enough!

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This page was last updated, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.