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Grammar: Pronouns

In casual conversation, people sometimes mix up subject and object pronouns. For instance, you might say, “Me and Donnie went to a movie last night.” However, when you are writing or speaking at work or in any other formal situation, you need to remember the distinctions between subject and object pronouns and be able to correct yourself. These subtle grammar corrections will enhance your professional image and reputation.

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify pronouns and their antecedents.
  2. Use pronouns and their antecedents correctly.

If there were no pronouns, all types of writing would be quite tedious to read. We would soon be frustrated by reading sentences like Bob said that Bob was tired or Christina told the class that Christina received an A. Pronouns help a writer avoid constant repetition. Knowing just how pronouns work is an important aspect of clear and concise writing.

Pronoun Agreement

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of (or refers back to) a noun or another pronoun. The word or words a pronoun refers to is called the antecedent of the pronoun.

  1. Lani complained that she was exhausted.

    • She refers to Lani.
    • Lani is the antecedent of she.
  2. Jeremy left the party early, so I did not see him until Monday at work.

    • Him refers to Jeremy.
    • Jeremy is the antecedent of him.
  3. Crina and Rosalie have been best friends ever since they were freshman in high school.

    • They refers to Crina and Rosalie.
    • Crina and Rosalie is the antecedent of they.

Pronoun agreement errors occur when the pronoun and the antecedent do not match or agree with each other. There are several types of pronoun agreement.

Agreement in Number

If the pronoun takes the place of or refers to a singular noun, the pronoun must also be singular.

Agreement in Person

Singular Pronouns Plural Pronouns
First Person I me my (mine) we us our (ours)
Second Person you you your (yours) you you your (your)
Third Person he, she, it him, her, it his, her, its they them their (theirs)

If you use a consistent person, your reader is less likely to be confused.

Exercise 1

Edit the following paragraph by correcting pronoun agreement errors in number and person.

Over spring break I visited my older cousin, Diana, and they took me to a butterfly exhibit at a museum. Diana and I have been close ever since she was young. Our mothers are twin sisters, and she is inseparable! Diana knows how much I love butterflies, so it was their special present to me. I have a soft spot for caterpillars too. I love them because something about the way it transforms is so interesting to me. One summer my grandmother gave me a butterfly growing kit, and you got to see the entire life cycle of five Painted Lady butterflies. I even got to set it free. So when my cousin said they wanted to take me to the butterfly exhibit, I was really excited!

Indefinite Pronouns and Agreement

Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person or thing and are usually singular. Note that a pronoun that refers to an indefinite singular pronoun should also be singular. The following are some common indefinite pronouns.

Common Indefinite Pronouns
all each one few nothing several
any each other many one some
anybody either neither one another somebody
anything everybody nobody oneself someone
both everyone none other something
each everything no one others anyone

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns suggest more than one person but are usually considered singular. Look over the following examples of collective nouns.

Common Collective Nouns
audience faculty public
band family school
class government society
committee group team
company jury tribe

Subject and Object Pronouns

Subject pronouns function as subjects in a sentence. Object pronouns function as the object of a verb or of a preposition.

Singular Pronouns Plural Pronouns
Subject Object Subject Object
I me we us
you you you you
he, she, it him, her, it they them

The following sentences show pronouns as subjects:

  1. She loves the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.
  2. Every summer, they picked up litter from national parks.

The following sentences show pronouns as objects:

  1. Marie leaned over and kissed him.
  2. Jane moved it to the corner.

Tip

Note that a pronoun can also be the object of a preposition.

Near them, the children played.

My mother stood between us.

The pronouns us and them are objects of the prepositions near and between. They answer the questions near whom? And between whom?

Compound subject pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function as the subject of the sentence.

The following sentences show pronouns with compound subjects:

Incorrect: Me and Harriet visited the Grand Canyon last summer.

Correct: Harriet and I visited the Grand Canyon last summer.

Correct: Jenna accompanied Harriet and me on our trip.

Tip

Note that object pronouns are never used in the subject position. One way to remember this rule is to remove the other subject in a compound subject, leave only the pronoun, and see whether the sentence makes sense. For example, Me visited the Grand Canyon last summer sounds immediately incorrect.

Compound object pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function as the object of the sentence.

Incorrect: I have a good feeling about Janice and I.

Correct: I have a good feeling about Janice and me.

Tip

It is correct to write Janice and me, as opposed to me and Janice. Just remember it is more polite to refer to yourself last.

Who versus Whom

Who or whoever is always the subject of a verb. Use who or whoever when the pronoun performs the action indicated by the verb.

Who won the marathon last Tuesday?

I wonder who came up with that terrible idea!

On the other hand, whom and whomever serve as objects. They are used when the pronoun does not perform an action. Use whom or whomever when the pronoun is the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition.

Whom did Frank marry the third time? (direct object of verb)

From whom did you buy that old record player? (object of preposition)

Tip

If you are having trouble deciding when to use who and whom, try this trick. Take the following sentence:

Who/Whom do I consider my best friend?

Reorder the sentence in your head, using either he or him in place of who or whom.

I consider him my best friend.

I consider he my best friend.

Which sentence sounds better? The first one, of course. So the trick is, if you can use him, you should use whom.

Key Takeaways

  • Pronouns and their antecedents need to agree in number and person.
  • Most indefinite pronouns are singular.
  • Collective nouns are usually singular.
  • Pronouns can function as subjects or objects.
  • Subject pronouns are never used as objects, and object pronouns are never used as subjects.
  • Who serves as a subject of a verb.
  • Whom serves as an object of a sentence or the object of a preposition.

This material is adapted from Successful Writing.  If you’d like another lesson on pronouns, have a look at this lesson from Writers’ Handbook. or this lesson on Using Pronouns Clearly from the OWL at Purdue.


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