The problem with pronouns


Does this sound familiar? You dial the telephone number, and three rings later, a voice responds: “Hello. You’ve reached company xyz. Billy and me ain’t in right now. We’s on vacation. Leave us a message, and he’ll call back as soon as we can.”

If you’re like most folks, you’ll consider using a different company after hearing this recording. If a company can’t get their outgoing message right, how can they be trusted to get anything else right?

Much the same way that we reach conclusions about a business from the person who answers the company telephone, we are often measured by our command of English cgrammar. While we’ve all been advised not to judge a book by its cover, we’ve also been taught the significance of first impressions.

With the importance of projecting a positive image in mind, let’s take a peek at pronouns. Consider the following example: An elementary school student tells you:

“Billy left Billy’s pencil in Billy’s locker.” As this statement illustrates, writing without using pronouns can cause sentences to be awkward and repetitive. The solution to this example is simple: replace the second and third reference to “Billy” with the pronoun “his”. “Billy left his pencil in his locker.” But don’t get too comfortable yet; not all pronoun problems are this easy.

In case you have forgotten, a pronoun simply is a word that takes the place of a specific noun. Your goal when writing clearly is to choose grammatically correct pronouns. In order to use pronouns correctly, you must understand the specific case (or purpose) to be satisfied by the pronoun (subjective, objective, or possessive).

Me, myself, and I are among the messiest pronoun problems. I recently heard a disc jockey announce to her listeners, “Rick and myself will be participating.” Because the pronoun needed in this sentence will serve as the doer of the action, a subjective case pronoun is needed. Thus the correct pronoun to use is I, not myself. The disc jockey should have said, “Rick and I will be participating.” Occasionally, we also hear people misuse me as in “Rick and me will be participating.” The pronoun “me” should only ever be used as an object. Possessive pronouns can be tricky too, especially prior to gerunds (the ing form of a verb used as a noun). It’s not, “I applauded him singing a cappella;” it’s, “I applauded his singing a cappella.” I am applauding his playing, not applauding him. Interestingly, if the singer was a female, there would be no confusion.

The pronoun, “her” satisfies both possessive and objective cases.

Now imagine that one of your friends tells you, “Mary runs faster than me.” At first glance, this sentence may appear correct. But do we really need an objective case pronoun in this situation. The answer is: No. If you make this mistake, you’re in good company. This is a popular pronoun problem. A deeper look at the meaning of this example reveals a comparison. The sentence is actually stating that Mary runs faster than I run. Even though the comparative verb is frequently dropped, run in this case, a subjective pronoun is needed as the doer of the action. Thus, your friend would be correct by saying, “Mary runs faster than I.”

What would you say if your sister or brother remarked, “A student who wants to get good grades should bring their books to class”? This illustration shows the importance of maintaining consistency in number when using pronouns. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must be plural. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must be singular. In this example, the antecedent student is singular, but the pronoun their is plural. This is a pronoun-antecedent error. Your sister or brother could fix the sentence as shown in the following example, “A student who wants to get good grades should bring his or her books to class?” While this solution is technically correct, many people find the constructions his or her to be wordy. A better solution is to pluralize the antecedent when possible as in, “Students who want to get good grades should bring their books to class.” Don’t forget when you change a singular subject to a plural one, you must also pluralize the verb.

And then there’s they — the infamous pronoun without an antecedent. Can you remember a situation when your boss or teacher was trying to persuade you to think or do something with a statement like, “They say exercise helps your memory,” or “Did you hear what they’re saying about aromatherapy?” Who are they? In casual conversation we may hear expressions like these frequently. However, to maintain credibility, it is important to remember to attribute news and information to a specific source, not an unidentified pronoun.

Consider this example, “When a driver approaches a school bus, you should expect to slow down.” Have you ever read a statement like this in a newspaper or magazine? Maintaining consistency in terms of person is also important when using pronouns. When you are writing in the “first person” ( I), avoid switching to the “second person” (you) or “third person” (he, she, they, it, etc.). Also, if you are writing in the “second person,” don’t switch to “first person” or “third person.” In this example “a driver” is third person and “you” is second person. The sentence should read, “When a driver approaches a school bus, he or she should expect to slow down.”


Remember also to be clear when using pronouns. Do you know people who depend on follow-up questions to get their point across? For example, in conversations with them, the request, “Would you get me that?” is frequently followed by the response, “Get you what?” To use pronouns effectively, we must avoid ambiguities. In the example: “If you put this apple in your lunchbox, don’t forget it,” what does “it” refer to? your lunchbox or the fact that you put the apple in your lunchbox? The sentence should be rewritten to eliminate the possibility of confusion. “Don’t forget you put your apple in your lunchbox.”

Finally, let’s visit the universal “he,” — such a small word to cause such big problems. The practice of using a male pronoun to refer to both males and females is increasingly inappropriate. Originally “man” meant both adult human and adult male. Now, however, the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that because “man” has come to be so closely associated with the adult male, the use of “man” and “he” to represent males and females should be avoided. By the way, for the men out there who don’t see what all the fuss is about, consider living with the universal “she.”Pronoun problems often develop due to the writer forgetting a grammar rule or two and then relying on popular usage for the solution. If you fall into this category, and you’re not sure if you need to dust off your English grammar handbook, why not try this little quiz to measure your propensity for pronoun prowess? Oh, and before your telephone rings again, consider this: what impression do you want to make? Correct the pronoun errors in the following sentences.


1. She draws better than me.

2. Don’t forget to pack the toothbrush in the suitcase. It is in the guestroom.

3. If a student asks a question, you must answer him.

4. They say to drink seven glasses of water per day.

5. Everybody ought to do his or her best.

6. None of the girls brought their hats.

7. When a shopper finds an unexpected bargain, you should take advantage of it.

8. Everybody attending the meeting brought a notebook with them).

9. We applauded their playing.

10. Me and Sue are coming to the party.


1. She draws better than I.

2. Replace “it” with either toothbrush or suitcase.

3. Change to: If students ask questions, you must answer them. You may also choose to

leave the antecedent student singular and use the pronouns “him or her.”4. (Attribute to an authoritative source, or say It is important to drink seven glasses of water per day).

5. Correct. Everybody is singular, so we need to use “his or her.” You may elect to make the subject of this sentence plural to avoid the wordy construction “his or her.”

6. None is singular, so we need to use “her.”

7. If you leave “shopper” singular, use “he or she.” Alternatively, pluralizing shopper to shoppers requires the use of the plural pronoun “they.”

8. Everybody is singular, so use “him or her”. If you choose to change everybody to a plural antecedent, change the pronoun to “them.”

9. We are not applauding them; we are applauding their playing. Use the possessive form before a verbal.

10. Rewrite as Sue and I are coming to the party.


About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
This entry was posted in *grammar posts, *writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The problem with pronouns

  1. Ooohh, I love this stuff, lol. The only one I had wrong was #6 … I always have problems with plural.

    Okay, now I’m going to be a pest and use an example from your next post … where you say, “A group of unicorns is called …” and then, “Twelve or more cows are …”

    So you used “is” because “A group” is singular and “Twelve or more” is plural? This always confuses me.

  2. That’s the crazy thing about collective nouns; they can be singular or plural. There was a conspiracy not to teach that in grade school, so that years later I could include it in my blog 😉

  3. Haydn says:

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks very much for your comment on my class blog today ( I like your grammar discussions, although I can see they’re geared towards English speakers who teach English or study the language, rather than to ESL students 🙂 I thought your discussion of pronouns, for instance, was a great discussion on the subject; the example that you gave of Elementary students over-stating pronouns is a classic case of what has happened to me in Australia! Another thing that creates a lot of confusion is prepositions and articles. I’m not going to ‘go there’ but they’re messy and I hate trying to explain them, especially to Elementary students.

    Your question about whether Americans ought to learn another language is a good one. I’m Australian and I think as the world’s predominant superpower America has a DUTY to learn the languages of the world’s nations. I’m Anglo Saxon and my wife is Korean, so I’ve learned that language. In doing so I understand her and her mindset better because I can put myself in her shoes. Language is not just words and grammar: it’s culture, it’s a worldview, it empowers people, and it can destroy people. America, I think, needs to understand the world a whole lot better than it currently does and one of the best ways to ensure that happens is to learn its languages. The world is not just America: it’s very diverse and differs from place to place and city to city. If every American learned a second language they would understand the world a lot better and enhance its image abroad.
    I don’t think that America’s the only nation that needs to do this: the average Australian only knows English and I think every Aussie would understand others better if they knew a second language. Australia still has racism issues, and I think it would help a lot if second languages were spoken. For crying out loud: we’re located in the Asia-Pacific region so we should engage more with Asia! Our political leader, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, can speak Mandarin and I think that’s a great step forward in the right direction. He’s the first PM to do this and I think the next American president ought to do the same.

    But Australia’s just a small country on the world stage. America is a superpower so I think it has a greater burden to ensure that the average Joe speaks another language.


  4. Very well said. I agree totally! While I’m struggline to learn a second language, I love it. I backpacked around Europe for a few months years ago, and the exposure to different people really opened my eyes to the beauty of experiencing their culture.

  5. Pam says:

    Number eight was the problem.
    I can usually go by the flow of the sentence but that particular combination gets me every time.

  6. Angela WD says:

    Great post! I get frustrated when someone starts a sentence singular and then use “their” or “them” later on. I’ve often heard people use “and myself” as a way to sound more intelligent. That makes me laugh.

    I also agree with Hadyn’s comments about speaking another language, but he/she probably doesn’t know that many Americans speak Spanish as well as English.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s