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Problems with Pronouns

Like Subject-Verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreeement is about parts of a sentence fitting together so that the reader does not stumble over mixed messages. A common problem in writing is that the writer does not always take care to match the pronoun to the antecedent (an "antecedent" is a fancy word for "the thing to which the pronoun is supposed to refer). This is the problem in the following sentence: "Everyone has their share," where "their" (plural) is not matched in number with "Everyone" (singular). Simple to fix, right? However, the issue gets more complicated when you are dealing with collective nouns (the crowd, men, students, etc.) or with indefinite words (person, doctor, etc.), or two antecedents joined by "and" "or" or "nor."  In addition, problems arise when the antecedent for a pronoun is unclear.  These "pronoun reference" problems often arise between sentences when a general pronoun such as "that," "this," or "it" is used to refer to an idea in a previous sentence.

In this module you will learn the following

  • to recognize different types of pronouns
  • to identify and correct mismatched pronouns and antecedents as well as pronoun reference problems in written text;
  • to avoid gender bias when using pronouns;
  • to write text free of pronoun-antecedent and pronoun reference mistakes.

Pronouns:

A pronoun refers to or stands in for a noun; the noun replaced by the pronoun is called the "antecedent" of the pronoun. There are many different types of pronouns used in many different situations:

subject pronouns are pronouns used as the subject of a sentence.  These include, I, you, he, she, it, we, what, who, and they. 

example:

Janet and I had a great dinner last night.

object pronouns are pronouns used as the target of a verb in a sentence, as in John gave me the book. Object pronouns include me, you him, her, it, us, whom, and them.  

possessive pronouns are used to indicate a state of ownership by a subject referenced in the possessive pronoun.  Possessive pronouns are mine, yours, ours, theirs, his, hers; and when possessive pronouns are used before a noun to establish ownership, they take an adjective case: my, your, our, their, his, her

example:

I believe that is his book. No, its mine.

demonstrative pronouns are used to refer to ideas or objects rather than people.  Demonstrative pronouns include this, that, these, and those.

example:

Mediterranean dishes are good for your heart. These include pasta dishes, fresh fish and seafood dishes, and salads.

indefinite pronouns are used to refer to an indefinite person, place, or thing, as in "anyone," or "some." There are many different indefinite pronouns, but here are a few of the most common: one, anybody, everybody, each, either, sombody, anyone, both, many, several, all, none.

Note: sometimes "they" and "you" are used as indefinite pronouns.  Be careful in academic writing with these pronouns, however, because they can create an unacceptable tone.  For example,

"You should always remember that heroes are made, not born,"

or "They say that Brittney Spears is crying out for help with her recent antics."

acceptable form:

Anyone can come to the event this evening.  No invitation is required.

relative pronouns are used to signal the beginning of a relative clause in the middle of a sentence. The relative pronoun stands in the for the noun antecedent, as in "The tan chihuahua is the dog that I want." Relative pronouns include which, who, whom, and that.

interrogative pronouns are used to begin questions. The interrogative pronouns are who, which, what, whom.

example:

Who is up for game of football?

 

Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

Problems arise when the pronoun that is used in a sentence does not "agree" with its antecedent. "Agreement" means that the pronoun is consistent with the "person" "number" and "gender" of the antecedent.

agreement in person: the pronoun and antecedent have the same subject.  For example, if the antecedent is "Johnny, Gabe and I," then the pronoun must be we or us, as opposed to you, or they. For example,

Johnny, Gabe, and I hauled three loads of trash from the fraternity to the dump yesterday. Next year, we will let someone else do the annual clean-up.

agreement in number: the pronoun and antecedent must both be plural, or both singular.  Confusion often arises with indefinite pronouns.  For example,

Somebody in the Women's Club will have to bring the pizza to the party tonight.  She will be reimbursed for the pizza by the Club.

agreement in gender: the pronoun and antecedent, even when made to agree, should not promote a gender bias.  Gender bias is often a problem in English because the English language has no gender-neutral, third-person, personal pronoun.  "One," an indefinite pronoun, can be used, but this pronoun can sound a bit formal. The best course of action is to avoid pronouns altogether, or to use a plural pronoun:

wrong:

A student can enroll in classes in a couple of ways: she/he can enroll online or in person at the administration building. . .

better:

Students can enroll in classes in a couple of ways: they can enroll online or in person at the administration building. . .

also Ok:

One can enroll in classes in a couple of ways: one can enroll online or in person at the administration building . . .

or:

Enroll in classes in one of two ways: online or in person at the administration building . . .

or (as a last resort):

A student can enroll in classes in a couple of ways: she or he can enroll online or in person at the administration building. . .

For more on eliminating gender bias in writing, visit the module on shifts.

Examples of Pronoun Antecedent Agreement:

Take a look at the following sentences showing agreement problems and their corrections:

error:  Everybody has their faults
correct:  Everybody has faults.

error: Every problem has their solution.
correct: Every problem has its solution.

error: It is you that is to blame.
correct: It is you who is to blame.

error: In Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times, he shows that . . .
correct: In Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times, Dickens shows that . . .

Note: Be careful when a noun is in possessive case, as in Dickens', because when a noun is in possessive case, it is considered an adjective, and so a pronoun cannot use it as an antecedent!

Which or That?

Students sometimes have trouble deciding whether to use "which" or "that" as a relative pronoun.  Use "that when the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence (when the clause is "restrictive"); use "which" when the relative clause is just a detail. For example, "Would you please pick up the flowers that I ordered today?" and "I watched Grey's Anatomy last night, which I really should not have done since I had so much work to do."

 

Pronoun Reference Problems

Pronoun reference problems are very common in the work of developing writers. Experienced writers make pronoun reference mistakes, too, but they know to proofread their work to check for such mistakes. Pronoun reference mistakes usually occur between sentences, particularly when modifiers and clauses distance the antecedent from the pronoun, or when a sentence contains several nouns. Take a look at the following sentences with pronoun reference problems:

error: If I took that bug out of her hair, do you think she would find it embarrassing? (What does it refer to? the bug? the action of taking the bug out of her hair?)

correct: Do you think she would find my removing that bug from her hair embarrassing?

error: When you live in a rural area, though, stores can be very far away, and it requires planning and much consolidation when it comes to making trips to town.(What does it refer to?)

correct: When you live in a rural area, though, stores can be very far away, and going to the store requires planning and much consolidation.

error: Children feel insignificant when their parents are too busy to spend time with them. This can cause them to withdraw into themselves and hinder other social relationships. (What does this refer to in the second sentence?)

correct: Children feel insignificant when their parents are too busy to spend time with them. This feeling can cause them to withdraw into themselves and hinder other social relationships.

 

 

 

Video Lesson
pronouns video lesson

Objectives

1. Pronouns

2. Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

3. Pronoun Reference Problems

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