Problems with Pronouns: How (and How NOT) to Use Them

I like to think I’m fairly laid back when it comes to the way people use language. I know what to do and what not to do, but I also know there is a difference in the grammar that is “proper” and the grammar we use day-to-day. Seriously, just spend an afternoon with me. You would be appalled they granted me an advanced degree given how many words and private grammar rules I make up on the fly. There was a time in my life when the differences between the grammars never bothered me. I am finding, in more recent years, some shifts are more aggravating than others, and it has occurred to me this is probably because I’m getting old. Ah well… That said, I still don’t correct anyone’s speech and only correct writing if someone has asked me to read it. Even if I’m cringing on the inside, I typically keep it to myself. And so because I cringed this week, we come to my next topic – how to use a pronoun.

Pronoun problems... don't do this.
Pronoun problems… don’t do this.

Quick review – what is a pronoun? A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. It’s rather like a substitute, understudy, stand-in, or second-string player. When a noun needs to take a break because it’s been used a lot, a pronoun covers. Pronouns are typically little words like me, she, he, it, or you. They can be a subject or an object, or they can show possession. Of course, when their jobs change, their form (or case) changes a little.

Example: I = subject; me = object; my/mine = possessive
(See the handy little pronoun case chart at the end)

Writers, especially those who don’t write much or aren’t very experienced, get into trouble when the pronouns they use could refer to more than one noun. It makes the writing confusing.

Bad: When Mike and Mark played golf on Friday, he got hit by a ball.

The noun to which a pronoun refers is called the antecedent, which literally means “comes before.” A pronoun is going to attach itself to the noun that preceded it. We could delve into why, but for now, let’s leave it at “that’s just how English works”. In the above example, he could refer to Mike or Mark because the sentence is about both Mike and Mark. Who got hit gets muddled.

Better: When Mike and Mark played gold on Friday, Mike got hit by a ball.

Now, we know who got hit, and we can go ahead and infer who probably laughed and who probably had a cursing fit.

Of course, some allowances can be made if the pronoun has gender. For example, if the noun immediately before her is John, chances are her refers to a female noun that occurred earlier in the writing.

Example: John found her purse.

While gender can help the reader deduce some meaning, gender neutral pronouns, like it, can be particularly confounding if not used correctly. In English, most objects aren’t considered male or female like they are in many of the Romance languages.

So very basically, if you can remember that a pronoun typically refers to the noun of the same gender, number, and case right before it, you’re well on your way to making your writing a lot easier to understand.

And now we come full circle, back to one of those day-to-day grammar quirks that drive me nuts. This foible makes me crazy because it has increased exponentially in the writing I’ve seen over the past few years. I actually saw it a couple days ago in a comment on a social media post. To spare the commenter, I will rewrite everything but the first three words.

Bad: We as humans should take more responsibility for our wasteful actions.

Excellent thought here. It really is. Though it has nothing to do with the grammar, I totally agree with the statement. It’s the “as humans” part that is problematic. We as humans? Really? What else would we be? Rhinoceroses? Plankton? Very large rocks?

Here, the writer is attempting to clarify a pronoun with little need to do so. As long as the writer is not taking the perspective of a rhinoceros, chances are no one is going to make that assumption. The antecedent occurred before the pronoun in a prior sentence so no clarification was needed. We know the writer is discussing humans and their actions.

There are some cases in which antecedents can be placed after the pronoun and still be well structured.

Better: We humans should take more responsibility for our wasteful actions.

This structure would be used when there are several sentences between the antecedent and the pronoun, or another group that could be “we” was introduced. In many “misplaced” antecedent instances, extra information is added (so the words are really performing the function of an adjective).

It’s helpful to understand that as is the equivalent of since in the example. “We, since we are humans, should take more responsibility…” That doesn’t really make any sense. Does it follow that we should be responsible just because we’re humans? We could debate the ethics, morality, and “ought” all day, but use only logic here. Being human doesn’t cause responsibility. Should a dog be more loyal just because it is a dog? This isn’t really going anywhere, is it? Consider this rewrite.

Better: We, as stewards of the Earth, should take more responsibility for our wasteful actions.

We are still humans, but now the sentence implies we are humans with a specific job – stewards of the Earth. Now, it doesn’t sound silly and makes logical sense.

So why would a writer attempt to clarify a pronoun that was already clear?

  1. The writer has lost track of where he/she is and doesn’t realize the pronoun needs no clarification (Though in that case, a better tactic would be to just say, “Humans should take more responsibility…”)
  2. The writer is trying to meet a word count and is adding as many words as humanly possible to communicate each thought.
  3. The writer heard a sentence like this in the past, is trying to sound insightful, didn’t understand what’s needed to pull it off, and simply failed.

Remember that the rules of grammar exist to help minimize confusion and miscommunication. They are not intended to bash well-meaning folk upside the head, making their lives miserable, but they do beg you to think about what you actually put down on paper or screen. Often, if you read your work slowly enough to think through it logically, your mistakes will practically jump off the page at you. Unfortunately, most people don’t take the time. I suppose it also helps to have read as many books as I have, but hey, when you’re a kid with no TV and a library card, you read a lot of books.

…unless you’re my brother, then you ride a lot of dirt bikes.


Here’s a Pronoun Case Chart for you.

Subject Object Possessive
I Me My/Mine
You You Your/Yours
She Her Her/Hers
He Him His
It It Its
We Us Our/Ours
They Them Their/Theirs
One One One’s


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