Pronouns

A mastery of pronouns is essential to good writing. It provides a relief from repetition and awkward sentences as pronouns act as direct representatives of other nouns, noun groups, noun clauses and phrases, gerunds, and possessives.

Look at the following dialogue:

A: I don’t know how to write code for this program.

B: Well, that’s not too difficult to learn. Actually, it’s easier than you think.

A: Really? My friend Wade, who works for a software developer, told me that he had a very difficult time learning it when he was just starting out. His supervisor made him and another newbie stay long hours at the office until they could figure out how to write the code error free. It took them almost two weeks to complete.

There are fifteen pronouns in this dialogue. By the end of this section, you should be able to identify the type and position of each.

First, make sure you are aware of the pronouns available for you to employ:

  • Indefinite Pronouns : all, each, one, someone/thing/body, anyone/thing/body,everyone/thing/body, none, some, few, many, most, both, either, neither, (an)other, others, no one/body/thing, any
  • Relative Pronouns: : who, whom, which, that, when, where, why, whoever, whomever, whichever




Each of the pronouns mentioned in the list has a specific position in a sentence, and a specific grammatical function. In writing, unlike in spoken English, misplacing or misusing pronouns can be very confusing to the reader and detrimental to the flow of the sentences and paragraphs. Look at the following example:

Janie Goodwin shares a room at the university with her best friend, Miranda. She is very pretty, and many boys have asked her out on a date, but Janie thinks it is more important for her to focus on her studies.

In this sentence we have two girls. We also have five pronouns referencing a female noun (she, her (4 times)). However, we have no indication as to whom four out of the five pronouns are referring; is Janie pretty, or is Miranda? Do the boys ask Janie out on dates, or do they ask Miranda? Does Janie think she herself needs to study more, or does Miranda?

This is a simple example, though improperly used pronouns can create a very difficult time for a reader in many situations, often where the reader cannot even guess at the reference. Situations such as these will not only make a piece of writing difficult to follow, they will also cost a test taker points in the writing section of an exam.

Another point to keep in mind here is distance; if it is not very clear what the pronoun is referring to, or if the pronoun is too far removed from the noun it represents, it is important to re-introduce the noun before changing to a pronoun again:

Having spent six years abroad, Jason finally decided to return home to Canada. Once there, he met Christine, the woman who would be his future wife and whose father owned a large factory near their hometown. Over the course of two years, Jason learned to run the factory, and eventually took over from Christine’s father.

In the above example, we re-introduce Jason and Christine. See the passage without this return:

Having spent six years abroad, Jason finally decided to return home to Canada. Once there, he met Christine, the woman who would be his future wife and whose father owned a large factory near their hometown. Over the course of two years, he learned to run the factory, and eventually took over from her father.

Of course, the reader can probably understand that he = Jason, and her = Christine. However, since there was another man (Christine’s father) in the sentence after the first pronouns used for Jason (he, his) the initial reaction of the reader is to guess which he is referred to in conjunction with the verb learned (he learned). In this case, it is better to ‘remind’ the reader who the the sentence is about. As for Christine, by the time she is referred to again, the reader might have forgotten who her refers to and might need a reminder.

There are ways to avoid such confusions. Firstly, we must understand the role of the pronouns listed above. Secondly, we must understand how and when to utilize pronouns for the sake of brevity and variety.

We’ll begin by understanding the importance of recognizing the positioning of pronouns in a sentence.

Subject Pronouns

The subject pronouns fall into three “person” categories: The first person (I, We); the second person (You); and the third person (He, She, It, They).

When using the first person pronoun, we are always referring to ourselves, whether as individuals or as a group. The third person pronoun always refers to other people or things, or a third party, meaning someone or something not directly involved in the conversation. If it seems strange to think of a “conversation” in writing, consider the conversation to be between the writer and the reader(s). The second person, you, is rarely used in writing except when addressing the reader directly, such as in a letter or email, or when reporting direct speech (He said, “ I love you.”).

Just like the noun it represents, the subject pronoun will always take the subject position within a clause, meaning that it will be connected to a tense verb. You and it, however, can also be used as object pronouns, so it is important to be aware of the position of the pronoun in order to know in which way it is being used.

The pronouns they and it often give non-native English users some difficulty; these two pronouns will be discussed in further detail later.



Look at these examples:

Professor Kline asked Heather to assist Tom in organizing the campaign. She accepted the request, and she and Tom agreed to begin making plans right away. They met at the library after the Professor’s lecture and discussed both his lecture and the campaign. They concluded that it would be great, and they couldn’t wait to see it kick off.

First—how many pronouns are in the above passage? There are eight pronouns. They are, in order of appearance: she, she, they, his, they, it, they, it. The professor’s is considered a possessive adjective, not a pronoun. It modifies the noun lecture.

Of the eight pronouns, how many are in the subject position? In other words, which ones are in fact the subjects of their respective clauses? If you are not sure, see if you can match a pronoun to a tense verb. If you can, then this is a subject pronoun.

She accepted

She agreed (She and Tom agreed = she agreed and Tom agreed.)

They met

They concluded

It would be

They couldn’t wait

It does not match with kick off. It is in the object position ( to see it) and is the object of the verb to see. Kick off is a complement to to see it, i.e., to see it (do what? kick off).

In all, six out of eight pronouns are in the subject position. The most difficult aspect of determining the subject pronoun is understanding if it is joined to a verb that is near it, such as with to see it kick off. In this case, kick off is not a tense verb, but rather a base verb (the idea of the action, not the action itself).

Here is another example to illustrate this confusion: The manager hired a new assistant. We are all excited for her to begin. To begin is the infinitive verb here; it works like a base verb in that it suggests the idea of the action, not the occurring action. That is why we have her and not she as the pronoun. The infinitive verb in this case acts as a complement to her, completing the meaning of what we are excited about in regards to her.

Another difficulty many students have with subject pronouns is remembering that both it and they can refer to things, places, actions, situations, or ideas; they, however, is more limited because it is more common to refer to actions and ideas in singular contexts (it), and they can also refer to people. Here are examples:

Sam proposed to Cynthia last year. He says it was the scariest thing he’d ever done.

it = proposing to Cynthia

There are many ways to approach academic research, such as online searches, finding material at the library, or interviewing experts in the field. Though these approaches are all effective, they are nevertheless insufficient if one does not have hands-on experience with the subject at hand.

They = these approaches (online searches, finding material at the library, or interviewing experts in the field)

To review, in order to identify the subject pronoun, isolate the clause in which it is being used and see if the pronoun acts as the subject in that clause.

Keep in mind that other pronouns may act as subjects in a clause; these are the demonstrative, indefinite, and relative pronouns. The difficulty here is that these pronouns can also be used in the object position in a clause. To easily solve this problem, approach it in a similar fashion to the subject pronouns: if the pronoun can attach to a tense verb in a clause, it is being used in the subject position.

That was such a great movie. That = the movie we are discussing (that is the subject)

Everyone arrived at the meeting on time. Everyone = all the people who were invited to the meeting (everyone is the subject)

I know what happened. What = the action that happened. (what is the subject of the noun clause, happened is the verb)


Object Pronouns

1st Person: me, us  2nd: you  3rd: him, her, it, them

Just as the subject pronoun replaces a noun, noun group, etc. in the subject position, an object pronoun replaces a noun, etc. in the object position. The object position can follow a transitive verb, a preposition, or an infinitive verb.

Remember that you and it can be used in both the subject and object positions:

Mr. Fields said that you came late to class. (sub)

Mr. Fields is worried about you. (obj)

It costs $100. (sub)

I can’t afford it. (obj)

Be careful with pronouns that follow a preposition—some prepositions have different uses and cannot be followed by an object pronoun, but rather by a possessive pronoun.

Michael thought of her as he boarded the plane home. In this example, of is used similarly to about. Therefore, her is the object of Michael’s thoughts.

Sally is a good friend of mine. In this example, of is used as a possessive preposition, suggesting that I “own” this friendship, it belongs to me. Therefore, we cannot use the object pronoun me, but rather the possessive pronoun mine.

That being said, remember that a preposition will never be followed by a subject pronoun.

Between you and I, this cake is terrible. This sentence is incorrect. Between is a preposition and must be followed by an object pronoun (or a reflexive pronoun in some cases).

Between you and me, this cake is terrible. This sentence is correct.

Adjective Pronouns

These are straightforward and self-explanatory. An adjective pronoun will always be used in conjunction with a noun, and it will signify possession (whose?).

I asked my neighbour to return my lawnmower, which he had borrowed last week.

This isn’t their first time in Cincinnati. Though time may not seem like something a person can possess, when we speak of experience, we consider it something that belongs to us.

Please remove all your belongings from the apartment before vacating it.

Possessive Pronouns

Possessive pronouns are a little tricky. They can appear in both the subject and object (or subject complement) position of a clause:

A: My umbrella is blue. Yours is more turquoise. (sub)

B: Are you sure? It looks exactly like mine. (obj)

As with the subject pronouns, first identify the main verb of the clause, i.e., the one that takes a tense. If it agrees with the pronoun, then the pronoun is being used as a subject. A more general clue to keep in mind is that possessive pronouns will often follow a preposition (except when it follows a be verb).

The Commander-in-Chief is ultimately responsible for the actions of his military, and all errors in judgment, therefore, are his or . (sub comp)(= his or her (C-in-C’s) errors in judgment)

As this example demonstrates, a possessive pronoun is essentially the same as a possessive adjective without the addition of the noun that follows.

That is my car. = That car is mine.

The professor invited colleagues of hers from the university to her daughter’s wedding. (obj of prep) This sentence can also be written like this:

The professor invited her colleagues from the university to her daughter’s wedding.

The difference between the two is slight: in the first sentence we don’t know how many colleagues. The second sentence suggests that she invited all her colleagues. Be careful in using the two structures.

The teacher tested both groups with equally challenging tasks, but ours responded more to his satisfaction. (sub)

Note: it is not very common to see the possessive pronoun in the subject position in formal written English.

One last note: an or ‘s can be used instead of a possessive pronoun with the original noun:

Candice was invited to dinner at the boss’. (= at the boss’ house)

Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns take the object position in a clause. It is important to understand, however, that we generally use reflexive pronouns when the object and subject of the clause are the same:

I cut myself shaving.

Stephanie taught herself to play the violin.

Not many people blame themselves when their life turns out badly.

A more important point in using the reflexive pronoun is that it often accompanies a reflexive verb. These are transitive verbs that must take a direct object, and which are able to reflect back on the subject. Put another way, there are certain verbs which allow a subject to act upon itself. Here are some examples of reflexive verbs: amuse, blame, cut, enjoy, help, hurt, introduce, teach, kill

It is important to notice that some of these verbs may be used in more than one way:

The bank’s financial consultant advises her clients by telling them that they can help themselves by becoming more informed about their investments.

Jacob helped himself to another serving of dessert when no one was watching.

In the first example, the clients help themselves, meaning that they provide help to themselves. In the second example, helped himself means that he took another serving by himself, i.e. he wasn’t served by anyone.

There are other verbs whose meaning is changed when they are used with a reflexive pronoun: Find, see, apply, busy

The manager found himself without a staff after he shouted at them without reason. (He suddenly was in a situation in which he had no staff.; to find oneself in a situation = to be in a situation suddenly, unexpectedly

I can see myself retiring in 5 years. (I can imagine this)

If a student applies herself, she can accomplish anything. (If she puts in a full effort.)

The children busied themselves with their toys while their mothers drank coffee and talked.(the children kept themselves busy.)

Verbs that a subject usually does for itself (e.g., shave, I shaved myself this morning), don’t require the pronoun as the meaning is clear without it (I shaved this morning).

This leads to other uses of the reflexive pronoun:

Emphasis: As the situation was critical, the President himself called each staff member for a personal consultation.

To show that an action was done without outside help: Clive fixed his car himself.

As an object of a preposition when the preposition is aimed at the reflected noun: Once a bear cub is old enough, the mother bear leaves it to hunt for itself.


Demonstrative Pronouns

Firstly, we must distinguish between a demonstrative pronoun and a demonstrative adjective. This, that, these, and those are either a pronoun or adjective depending on how they are used in a clause or sentence. If the demonstrative requires a noun, then it is an adjective. If it stands in the place of a noun and refers to something specific that has already been mentioned, then it is a pronoun.

Given that this situation was not of our own doing, we do not assume responsibility for its outcome. (adj.)

However, should the Board decide to tackle the problem, we will accept this and do what is necessary. (pro.) (this = decision)

Demonstrative pronouns must represent a clearly defined noun that preceded it. In other words, it must be very clear what noun(s) these pronouns are replacing; otherwise, the noun must be accompanied by a modifier (other than a direct adjective) that clearly identifies it. If a modifier does not suit the sentence, then use a demonstrative adjective with the noun:

Those who have not yet registered must do so before the end of this week. (those = people (who have not yet registered))—it must be clear here that people have already been mentioned prior to this sentence.

These types of people often leave things to the last minute.

Let’s look again at one of the above examples:

However, should the Board decide to tackle the problem, we will accept this and do what is necessary. Some readers might confuse this as representing the last noun mentioned (problem). If a writer believes that this type of confusion might occur, then the better sentence would be more direct:

However, should the Board decide to tackle the problem, we will accept this decision and do what is necessary. Be very careful with your writing. A confusing demonstrative pronoun can create many difficulties for the reader. That being said, the purpose of the demonstrative pronoun is to reduce wordiness. In the example we have just looked at, it should be clear to an able reader that this refers to decision and not problem because of the verb that is associated with it, accept. The sentence means that If the Board decides… then we will accept the decision.

A few points about the demonstrative pronouns:

1- This and that are singular, and can only represent people when they are being introduced or pointed out (This is Tom, and that is Margaret); they can only be used in place of animals or things. These and those are plural and can be used in place of any noun.

2- This and these are used to refer to near nouns, while that and those refer to distant nouns, meaning that the noun being represented by this, for instance, is physically near the speaker/writer, or near in terms of distance of point-of-mention. For example, an action that occurred last week would be that action, while an action that has recently occurred would be this action. There is no set rule to this point. Use your best judgment and decide whether you think the reader will understand. If you want to make sure there is less or no confusion, use a demonstrative adjective and make the reference as clear as possible.

This (here) is Tom, and that (there) is Margaret.

3- Demonstrative pronouns can take the subject or object position in a clause. Use the same principles to determine positioning as with other pronouns.

4- Do not confuse the demonstrative that with the noun clause marker that.

The suspect tried to explain to the detectives that that wasn’t him in the surveillance camera footage.

Do not confuse the demonstrative that with the quantifying adverb that:

That wasn’t that hard. I expected something more challenging.

Examples: (demonstrative pronouns are italicized)

The problem with environmental protection isn’t funding. That is actually quite easy to acquire. The problem is that not enough people are aware that environmental concerns exist. That is what we need to address at the conference this weekend. Once we have done that, moving forward on serious projects will be that much simpler.

Those who have had the opportunity to hear tonight’s speaker in the past will understand the excitement in the audience.

The experiment has yielded highly significant results. These will be published in detail in next month’s issue of American Medical Journal. This is merely a short summary of what to expect in that report.

Indefinite Pronouns

These pronouns often present a real challenge to writers. The difficulty generally arises in identifying the position of the pronoun in its clause. For example, in the sentence Some of the students skipped school that day, the subject is some, not students. of the students is a modifier to identify who some refers to. Indefinite pronouns are often followed by a prepositional phrase as modifier, though this is not necessary: Others were absent because they were taking their university exams—the subject here is others.

Indefinite pronouns can take the object position in a sentence as well: The principle was angry with everyone because the turnout for the school festival was lower than anticipated. He expected all of them to attend. The pronoun in the object position can be the object of the verb or the object of a preposition.

What makes indefinite pronouns more difficult is that many of them can also act in other capacities in a sentence:

Some parents who attended the festival were worried that some of their children had gone missing. 1st some = adjective; 2nd some = pronoun

The key to properly using indefinite pronouns is, first, understand the position and use of the word itself (i.e., is it a pronoun or other part of speech?); second, understand the pronoun’s relationship with other words (e.g., if it is a subject, does it agree with the verb in terms of number, person, capacity (can this pronoun do this verb)? if it is an object, is it an object of the transitive verb, or of a preposition? Etc.)

Here are a few sample uses of pronouns with an explanation of their use.

Anyone caught defacing public buildings will be punished severely. (sub)

Each of the attendees was given a brochure and a questionnaire.(sub—notice that each is singular and agrees with the verb was in terms of number)

I gave it all I had. (obj of gave)

The judge wouldn’t accept any of the evidence presented in the case. (obj of accept, modified by the prepositional phrase)

There are some pronouns that need special attention:

None: None can mean not a single one, or not any. After the ceremony, the presiding judge lamented that though many had received their certification, none was/were deserving of it. None can be followed by a singular or plural verb. Generally, if none refers to a singular noun, use a singular verb. If a plural, then a plural. If you are not sure, go with the singular, none was deserving.

None of the cars that were stolen has been recovered. – not a single one has been recovered.

None of the cars that were stolen have been recovered. – the police have not recovered any of the cars.

For standardized tests (SAT, GMAT, etc., go with the singular)

Both: This pronoun always represents two nouns. Therefore it will always take a plural verb when used as a subject.

The suspects were charged with the murder. Both continue to deny involvement to this day. (two suspects)

Neither: This pronoun will also represent two nouns. The verb will agree with the noun that appears second.

Neither the mayor nor his aides were convicted in the scandal.

Neither the gang members nor their leader was convicted.

If both nouns are singular or plural, then of course the verb agrees with that number. If the pronoun appears by itself (neither was given the opportunity to defend his actions), then the nouns have already been established (his actions) and are of a common number.

Each/Every: Although these two pronouns are synonymous, there are situations in which one is better than the other, or in which one must be used where the other cannot be.

Firstly, the subtle difference in meaning is that each suggest individual nouns, while every looks at the group of nouns. Both mean one, yet the approach is slightly different.

Each student is to present a report about his or her experience at the museum. (The teacher wants to hear what each individual student experienced)

Every student is to present a report about his or her (or their) experience at the museum. (The teacher wants all the students to do the homework, but it can be in groups or as individuals) (NB: although technically their is not correct in this situation, it is commonly used and is acceptable (though not on a test such as the SAT))

Each can be followed by of, while every can be followed by one of.

Each of the firefighters received a medal for his or her bravery.

Every one of the firefighters received a medal for his or her bravery.

When the group consists of only two items/people/etc., use each. When there are more than two, use either each or every.

Place a slice of cucumber on each eye and leave it there for 20 minutes.

You can place each before a verb.

Thank you all for your efforts. You each delivered a wonderful speech; however, we can, unfortunately, only award the prize to one of you.



Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are used in conjunction with relative clauses. As such, they are used to refer to a noun that is modified by the relative clause, either an identifying or describing one, and can therefore take the subject or object position in the clause.

The inspector who was supposed to assess the plant was unavailable to answer questions over the phone. (sub)

The storm, which forecasters had not predicted, left as suddenly as it had appeared. (obj)

Relative pronouns also appear in noun clauses. A subject pronoun in a noun clause still represents a noun and so is considered a relative pronoun:

Whoever presents the most compelling evidence will be chosen to lead the defense team. (sub of noun clause = the person/people who present)

Special Note: it, they/them, and that

These four words are among the most commonly used in English, yet they are often the cause of many misunderstandings and confusion in written work.

Let’s look at each word and its uses:

It:

It can be a pronoun in both the subject and object position. It always refers to a single noun that is not a person. This noun can be a thing, an animal, a place, a situation, or an idea.

The crisis requires a calm and reasoned approach. It also requires someone with a balanced temperament to deal with it. (it = crisis)

The cause of death was determined to be a result of a bear attack. It (or this) is surprising in that bears generally do not approach humans unless they feel threatened. The bear in question must have felt that this person threatened it. (1st it =  cause of death; 2nd it = bear)

It can also be used as a “dummy” subject, or “anticipatory” subject in a sentence:

It is important to remember that taxes must be filed before the end of April. (it = that taxes must be filed before the end of April; this noun clause is the actual subject of the sentence: That taxes must be filed before the end of April is important to remember. 
It can also be used as an abstract pronoun:

It is raining.(it = the situation, climate, weather, etc.)

How is it going? (it = life, situation, your feeling, etc.)

They/Them:

they and them are much simpler. The reason they are mentioned here is that many newcomers to English have a hard time dealing with the fact that these pronouns do not have to refer to people only. they and them can refer to things in the same way that it can, though in plural contexts. In other words, they and them can refer to people (3rd person, plural), things, ideas, situations, etc.

Kyle bought all of his textbooks on the same day. He didn’t consider how heavy they would be, and so had to leave some at school and make plans to pick them up the following day.

Justine asked her coworkers if they would like to join her for a baseball game on the weekend. She had extra tickets and didn’t want them to go to waste. She told them that they were great seats and that they would have fun. (Although this sentence is technically correct and the pronouns can probably be easily understood in context, it is not recommended to mix so many referents into a sentence. The pronouns are the same but refer to both people and things. This was done here only to illustrate the uses of they and them.)

That:

This is a difficult word. The reason it is difficult is that this word is so commonly used in both written and spoken English, and for many different purposes, that it is sometimes hard for writers to know which use is called for in a particular context.

That as demonstrative pronoun/adjective:

That is the main reason he quit. There were others, of course, but that was the main one. (that in this case refers to something already specified before (i.e., reason)

That man has no business running a bank. (that man— adjective for an already referenced man)

That as noun clause marker:

Philip mentioned that sales were down this quarter, and he also said that the boss was angry. (that as introduction to a noun clause. Both examples are optional in this sentence, meaning that they can be omitted.)

That as adjective clause marker (relative pronoun):

The report that Carey saw was not the one that went to the newspapers. (In both cases, that here refers to the report)

That as an adverb:

The cost wasn’t that expensive. I expected it to be much higher. (here, that means very, with a sense of emphasis)

That used in conjunction with other words: so that—adverb clause marker (result); such that—transition; in that—transition.

Belinda arrived at the concert hall too late to find a good seat so that she could barely see the performance from where she stood.

The results of the experiment were such that more research was deemed necessary.

This team was considered unbeatable in that no one could match up to their physical size and strength

Prepositions