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Pronouns—words such as it, he, they, we, anyone, and she—are substitutes for nouns. They play an important role in the clarity and style of a piece of writing.
In response to evolving social norms, pronoun “rules” have expanded to offer writers more inclusive options. In this resource, we explain those options. We recommend that students check in with their professors if there is any question of which options are preferred for particular assignments. SASS also supports writers’ agency to break grammar rules for a variety of rhetorical purposes (emphasis, clarity, elegance, etc.), but it is important for writers to understand the rules before choosing to break them.
With the exception of the gender-neutral singular “they” (see “Avoiding gender bias”), a pronoun should agree in number and person with the noun (the person, place, or thing) to which it refers. For example:
Professor Boaler notes, in her essay, that “mathematics is a conceptual domain.” Her ideas are well-received in some academic circles, but they have also met with resistance.
Because Professor Boaler is one person and uses she/her pronouns in her online professional biography, we use the singular feminine pronoun her. Because the word ideas is plural, it requires the plural they in this sentence.
Find a pronoun in your writing and check its antecedent (the noun it represents, e.g., Professor Boaler in the sentence above). Is the antecedent first-person, second-person, or third-person? Is it singular or plural? Then check the pronoun: does it match the antecedent in person and number? Use this chart as a reference:
|Singular||I, me, myself||You (singular), yourself||It, itself, he, him, himself, she, her, herself, they*, their*, themself*|
|Plural||We, us, ourselves||You (plural), yourselves||They, them, themselves|
*see tab “Avoiding gender bias in pronoun use”
Note that it’s easy to forget that the following words are all singular and should take singular pronouns:
Would anyone like to share his solution to the problem?
Would anyone like to share their* solution to the problem?
*(note the use of the gender-neutral singular “they” for the singular “anyone”)
Neither of the women liked her dessert, so each swapped with the other.
Boaler, J. (2020, December 16). Developing Mathematical Mindsets: The Need to Interact with Numbers Flexibly and Conceptually. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1200568.pdf
Inclusive pronoun use
In the past, a common approach to pronoun use was to use a third-person pronoun—that is, writing he or him or, more recently, he or she, or him or her—to refer to a single person. For example:
A research candidate in our department must demonstrate his or her mastery of statistics. He or she will be expected to pass a test.
However, many people consider the use of binary gender designations (i.e., language that assumes a person is either male or female) not inclusive. At SASS, we believe that academic writing should always be as inclusive as possible. Therefore, we recommend that, when writing about a particular person, you make an effort to learn the person’s gender, if possible, and use an appropriate pronoun. If you don’t know the person’s gender, or if you are not writing about a particular person and want to avoid assigning gender to the subject of your writing, try one of these options:
- Make the antecedent (the original noun) and its pronoun plural. For example:
Research candidates in our department must demonstrate their mastery of statistics by passing a test.
- Rewrite the sentence to avoid using a pronoun altogether. For example:
A passing mark on a statistics test is required of all research candidates.
- Use the singular they. Although they has until recently been considered a plural pronoun only, the singular they has gained widespread acceptance as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; “they” can now be used in both a singular and a plural sense. For example:
A research candidate in our department must demonstrate their mastery of statistics by passing a test.
The singular they is already commonly used in speech and in informal writing; it is also accepted by a number of organizations—for example, the American Psychological Association and the Government of Canada—as a practical response to evolving social norms.
We recommend that students ask their professors about the use of the singular they, to clarify their purpose in using it and avoid losing marks over perceived grammatical errors.
Confusing and vague use of pronouns
Pronouns can cause confusion when their antecedents aren’t clear. An antecedent is the noun to which a pronoun refers. For example:
Smith compares artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, but she is unique.
The reader cannot be certain whether she refers to O’Keeffe or Kahlo, or even Smith. The sentence should be rewritten in this way:
Smith compares artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, but Kahlo is unique.
Another example of an unclear antecedent:
We found errors in the completed experiments and described them.
It’s not clear whether them refers to the errors or experiments. The sentence should be rewritten in one of these ways:
In the experiments completed, we found and described errors.
We described errors in the completed experiments.
While confusing pronouns refer to a number of possible nouns in a sentence, vague pronouns are not linked to any specific noun. For example, the pronouns it or this can be vague, especially in reference to a group of words indicating an idea. For example:
During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson, for example, assumed it was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.
During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson, for example, assumed this was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.
The pronouns it and this do not replace a specific noun in the preceding sentences. Instead, it does not refer to a specific noun, and this attempts to replace the whole idea that American leaders believed taking over Canada would be easy. The vague use of it and this might be corrected in this way, respectively:
During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson assumed this conquest was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.
During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson, for example, assumed that such an appropriation was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.
A useful tip to remember is that this should rarely appear on its own; placing a noun after this (as in this idea or this event) will ensure that this refers to a specific noun that is easy for the reader to identify.
Make sure the connections between pronouns and their antecedents (the nouns they stand in for) are crystal clear. Inexperienced or rushed writers commonly confuse their readers by placing the antecedent and pronoun too far apart in a sentence or paragraph, often with another possible candidate for antecedence in between the real antecedent and the pronoun—for example:
Brandon had been feeling troubled for some time, so he took his dog out for a long walk in the woods. The dog frolicked among the autumn leaves and he felt better.
In this example, it’s not clear if Brandon or his dog feels better, because the pronoun “he” is placed so far away from its antecedent “Brandon,” and the dog is mentioned between the two.
Brandon had been feeling troubled for some time, so he took his dog out for a long walk in the woods. The dog frolicked among the autumn leaves and, watching him, Brandon felt better.
Brandon had been feeling troubled for some time, so he took his dog out for a long walk in the woods. Watching the dog frolic among the autumn leaves made Brandon feel better.
Me or I? Subject and object pronouns
Another form of pronoun misuse occurs when writers mix up their subject and object pronouns. For example,
The Residence Don spoke kindly to he and I.
One way to informally and quickly check this sort of situation is to remove one of the pronouns and read out loud; many writers will hear that the pronoun is wrong:
The Residence Don spoke kindly to I. (or he) (Wrong!)
The Residence Don spoke kindly to me. (or him) (Correct!)
However, this informal test isn’t reliable. It’s better to understand the rules so you will always make good pronoun choices. So, what’s going on here? Subjects and objects. Subjects are the part of the sentence that do the action, and objects receive the action. In the example above, the action (the verb) is spoke. The subject doing the action is the Residence Don. The objects receiving the action (being spoken to) are him and me.
Here is a helpful pronoun chart from Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) resources (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/02/).
|Subject Pronouns||Object Pronouns|
|he, she, it||him, her, it|
Choosing the correct pronoun for an antecedent (the noun that the pronoun represents) requires you to know if the antecedent is an object or subject (you may want to refer to OWL’s chart above to make sure you’ve got it right). For example:
The manager, unseen on the balcony, gleefully toppled the flowerpot onto the pavement below.
In this sentence, the manager is the subject (does the action) and the flowerpot is the object (receives the action), so according to the chart above, the appropriate pronoun for the manager is he or she or they, depending on what you know of the person’s gender, and the appropriate pronoun for the flowerpot is it. A following sentence, using pronouns, might go like this:
Returning downstairs, she felt a quiet satisfaction at how thoroughly it had smashed.