Sometimes it can be difficult to ensure that you are using the correct pronoun. The challenge is making sure you know which word is the antecedent.
Challenge 1: Interrupting Phrases
Try not to get distracted by phrases that come between the antecedent and the pronoun.
Jeremy, one of the waiters, dropped his tray.
Jeremy = his, but waiters = their. Don't use the plural pronoun their if Jeremy was the only waiter who dropped his tray.
- Cross out the interrupting phrase to make sure you find the correct antecedent.
one of the waiters, dropped his tray.
Challenge 2: When the Reference Is Unclear
Usually the pronoun refers to the last noun mentioned or the last subject, but sometimes it's unclear which noun is the antecedent. Some textbooks call this "ambiguous pronoun reference." If using a pronoun could cause a misunderstanding, it is better to use the noun instead.
|Joan and Marcie went to work. She was late.||
Which one was late? The pronoun she could refer to either Joan or Marcie, so it's better to use the name instead of the pronoun.
Joan and Marcie went to work. Marcie was late.
|My father was just like his grandfather, but he was not as tall.||
Who was not as tall? He could refer to either father or grandfather.
My father was just like my grandfather, but my father was not as tall.
- Ambiguous pronoun reference occurs often when you write because in your imagination, you can clearly see whom you are writing about. Have a friend read your essay for you, paying special attention to the pronouns.
Challenge 3: Pronoun Shifts
Make sure you don't change from first or third person to second person, or vice-versa. In other words, don't switch pronouns midway through your sentence. If you start with the first person (I, we, etc.) or third person (she, they, etc.), stick with it.
One important cause of pronoun shifts is the use of the indefinite you, which is an informal way to talk about others.
You take a driving test when you want to get your license.
In this sentence, you is actually a stand-in for people. What you really mean is that, in general, people take a driving test when they want to get their license.
When using the indefinite you, a pronoun shift is an easy mistake to make. Many people start their sentences in first or third person and suddenly switch to the indefinite you. The reverse can also happen. The chart below will help you identify pronoun shifts, and show you some easy ways to fix them.
- When people talk to each other, it's easier and more personal to use the indefinite you than to use the word people. While using the indefinite you is fine for informal speech, it's not appropriate in formal writing. When you write, don't use you unless you mean the reader.
|First ⇒ Second||We went to the top of the Sears Tower where
||We went to the top of the Sears Tower where we could see the entire city of Chicago.|
|Second ⇒ Third||When you go to the movies,
When you go to the movies, you can buy your ticket in advance.
When people go to the movies, they can buy their tickets in advance.
|Third ⇒ Second||A police officer has a dangerous job because
A police officer has a dangerous job because he or she often puts his or her life at risk.
If you think this phrasing sounds awkward, you're not alone! Although using he or she avoids gender-biased language, it often results in strange-sounding sentences. The better option is to make your sentence plural:
Police officers have a dangerous job because they often put their lives at risk.
- When you talk to someone using the second person, it's called direct address. We often use direct address when we ask questions (how are you?). When you use someone's name as the direct address in a sentence, that person's name is not the antecedent; the unstated you is the real antecedent.
Maryanne, are these your glasses?
The antecedent is the unstated you, not Maryanne, so use your, not her.
- Another type of pronoun shift occurs when someone starts a sentence with a singular pronoun and later uses a plural pronoun. This information is covered in Lesson 9.
Challenge 4: Collective Nouns
Collective nouns appear to be plural nouns because they really refer to a group, but they are often singular. You need to understand how the group is acting in order to choose the correct pronoun. Sometimes the group acts as a whole. Other times the members of the group act as individuals.
The team won its last game.
In this sentence, the collective noun is singular. The team was working as a whole to win.
The team took their uniforms home and washed them.
In this sentence, the collective noun is plural because the team members individually took their uniforms home to wash them.