Pronoun Problems

[All the English pronouns are listed in Reference under Pronouns.]

Pronoun Reference

Sometimes pronouns refer to things that are understood from the context, as when you point to something in your friend’s hand and ask, “May I see that?” or yell, “Cut it out!” to the person trying to tickle you. Usually, however, a pronoun must refer to a previously mentioned noun, called the antecedent (Latin for “coming before”).

ERROR: In those years women were treated with respect. They took off their hats and bowed.

In those years women were treated with respect. Gentlemen took off their hats and bowed.

Once you’ve mentioned a noun, you can continue to refer to it with a pronoun, but it’s important to keep the reference clear:

ERROR: Aunt Em and Uncle Charlie are born gamblers. They deeply admire card sharks, but they prefer to play poker in private.

The writer presumably knows whether it’s Aunt Em and Uncle Charlie or if it’s the sharks who prefer poker privacy, but the reader has to guess. Is it Em and Charlie, because they’re the subjects of all the other finite verbs? Or does they refer to sharks because sharks is the closer noun? Here are two possible solutions:

They deeply admire card sharks but prefer to play poker in private. [Em and Charlie are now clearly the subjects of both finite verbs.]

They deeply admire card sharks, but the sharks prefer to play poker in private.

In the following example, the reference of which is ambiguous: does it refer to the sharks’ traveling in schools or to their clothes, or to both?

ERROR: These sharks travel in schools and wear flashy clothes, which should make amateurs suspicious.

These sharks travel in schools and wear flashy clothes, facts which should make amateurs suspicious. [Now which refers to facts, which refers to both travel and wear.]

In the following example, the pronoun this could refer to the activity in either of the two main clauses:

ERROR: Fang dribbled his venom, and Miss Hiss went home in a huff, although this didn’t make the six o’clock news.

Fang dribbled his venom, and Miss Hiss went home in a huff, although neither incident made it to the six o’clock news.

Attributive nouns and possessive nouns function as modifiers and so can’t be the antecedents of pronouns:

ERROR: Ms. Beebs planned an entire dinner around Jell-O recipes even though she doesn’t like it. [Jell-O is an attributive noun modifying recipes.]

Ms. Beebs planned an entire dinner around recipes that use Jell-O, even though she doesn’t like it.

Ms. Beebs planned an entire dinner around Jell-O recipes even though she doesn’t like quivering food.

ERROR: Fang put itching powder in Miss Hiss’s ballet slippers, who seemed not to notice. [Who is a relative pronoun in this sentence. Relative pronouns must come immediately after the nouns they modify. In this sentence, it looks as though the slippers didn’t notice. The problem comes because the possessive noun (Miss Hiss’s) modifies ballet slippers.

Miss Hiss didn’t seem to notice that Fang had put itching powder in her ballet slippers.

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Pronoun Case

[All the English pronouns are listed in the Reference Section under Pronouns.]

Case refers to the forms that pronouns have in various syntactic situations. The three cases in English are called subjective, objective, and possessive.

The subjective case (I, we) is for subjects of most finite verbs.

The objective case (me, them) is for all completers: of finite and non-finite verbs and of prepositions.

The possessive case is used when the pronoun indicates ownership, or “belonging-to.” There are two possessive forms for pronouns: one is for possessive determiners, which come before the noun: my book, their piranha, and so on; the other is for possessive pronouns: the book is mine; the elephant is hers.

People rarely use the wrong case of a single pronoun in writing, as in “Are you talking to I?” or “That frog loves she.” But one’s sense of case can be disturbed when pronouns are coordinated with other pronouns or with nouns. In such situations, the best way to check the case of the pronouns is to read your sentence over and say each coordinate element separately:

ERROR: They chose you and he as Miss Hiss’s tutors. [If you say, “They chose you, they chose he,” it’s easy to see that he should be him.]

ERROR: The workload is heavy for we fleas. [If you check by saying, “The workload is heavy for we, you’ll feel the error, and you’d change we to us.]

This kind of error is sometimes called over-correctness or hypercorrectness since it often results from a fear of making a socially embarrassing error, such as “Me and him is going.”

In comparative clauses, where a number of clause elements may be ellipted (left out), it can be harder to see what the correct case of a surviving pronoun should be. To check on this, add in the ellipted material. [See ellipsis.]

He’s much more slimy than I. [The complete dependent clause is than I am slimy: I is the subject of the ellipted am.]

We hibernated as long as they. [The complete comparative clause is as they hibernated.]

This rule, however, applies only to reasonably formal writing. In speaking, most people would say “more slimy than me” and “as long as them.”

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Pronoun Number

Pronouns are either singular or plural depending, of course, on whether their antecedents are singular or plural. Problems with number usually arise only with collective nouns, which refer to groups of people or things. (See also Agreement with Collective Nouns.)

Collective nouns are replaced by singular pronouns when the group is thought of as an integrated unit, acting all together:

The gang is buying its favorite brand of concrete.

The committee asked its members to stop putting whoopee cushions on the chairperson’s seat.

If, however, the group is thought of as composed of individual members, plural pronouns are correct:

The flock wanted their spare feathers to be returned.

The team wanted their numbers tattooed on their earlobes.

Pairs of appositives “add up” to one thing and thus are referred to by singular pronouns (and, of course, the finite verb is singular):

Limburger, my favorite cheese, is recognized by its sickening color.

Dr. Finscale, the celebrated ichthyologist, wants her piranhas relocated.

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Relative Pronouns: That, Which, Who, Whose, Whom

The relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) introduce WH-word adjective clauses, which are commonly called relative clauses (see wh-word adjective clauses). Here are the conventions used in writing (I’ve never heard anyone using relative pronouns incorrectly in speaking). I’ve enclosed the relative clauses in curly brackets:

a. That and who can refer both to persons and things; which can refer only to things.

b. Who and which can be used in both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. That can be used only in restrictive clauses (see Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Modifiers).

The people {who / that ate the pancakes} should report for stomach pumping.

Fang, {who thinks he’s a snappy dresser}, has started to wear tartan neckties.

The dance {that / which Miss Hiss was practicing} is called the “Wiggle-in-the-Grass” Polka.

The “Wiggle-in-the-Grass” Polka, {which is one of Miss Hiss’s favorites}, requires exquisite timing.

c. Whose indicates possession:

The termites, {whose trapeze act is lauded by everyone}, are thinking of moving into real estate. [Compare the termites’ trapeze act.]

Anyone {whose nose is out of joint} can apply for nasal surgery. [Compare anyone’s nose.]

d. Whom is used (most often in relatively formal writing) alongside of who when the antecedent is a completer: But if you begin relative clause with a preposition—this is quite formal—you must use whom:

Maestro Crow, {whom / who we invited to our carrion conference}, is an international authority on roadkill.

We wondered {who / whom the satire referred to}. / We wondered {to whom the satire referred}.

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