Pronouns stand in for nouns. That’s why they’re called pro – nouns. When used properly, pronoun referents are clear. Every problem of pronoun reference upsets this clarity so that readers have problems deciding which of two or three earlier nouns a pronoun stands for or have difficulties finding any noun at all. Sometimes, of course, writers want a text to be ambiguous, either for poetic reasons or to work a scam. In general, academic and professional writing intends neither of those things. Here are some of the main problems with pronoun reference with suggested fixes for each.
1. Ambiguous Reference. When readers can’t tell for sure which of two or three earlier nouns a pronoun stands for, grammar books call that an ambiguous reference error. Example:
Is this pie Anne’s or Lucy’s? There’s no way to be sure, though technically a pronoun refers to the nearest preceding noun, which would be Lucy. Any time the reader pauses to question the meaning, the flow of the author’s argument is lost. Of course, it is possible that the author wants to be ambiguous. If not, however, the author may wish to revise.
One good fix is to move the pronoun forward:
“My pie has no nuts,” Anne assured Lucy. “You can eat it safely.”
“Your pie was wonderful!” Lucy said warmly.
Let’s try another.
Did the files or the workers return to the main office? Here’s one of several possible fixes:
The documents arranged by the temporary workers were badly out of order, so we sent all the files back to the main office to be resorted. It took days.
2. Implied Antecedents An antecedent is a previous item, in this case the noun the pronoun usually stands for. Sometimes, the author wants to refer to the whole idea of the statement. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that desire unless clarity is intended and the pronoun referent is awkward or confusing. Consider this example where there is both an individual race and a whole meet at issue:
What does ‘it’ stand for here, the lining or the suit? Probably that’s suit, but we can’t be sure because the directions discuss a manipulation of the lining.
Hem the skirt after removing the lining, which is too warm for this weather.
Remove and hem the lining to better fit the skirt.
Let’s try another one:
Who or what was praised, the senate or the machines? The nearest noun antecedent is “dining halls”, but is that what is meant? Probably not. Here’s a possible fix:
The student senate won campus-wide praise for lobbying the administration for more vending machines in buildings distant from dining facilities.
That’s clearer, but there are still quit a long string of prepositional phrases.
Avoid prepositional phrase pile-ups: Prepositions can lead to confusion. (If you aren’t sure what a preposition is, go to this note. You will be able to click on another directional link to come right back here.) When four, five, or even more prepositional phrases all get piled into a sentence, who’s doing what to whom can get very confused. So, avoid such pile-ups. You don’t have to say everything you know. Focus on what is really necessary. If that’s really everything, break the sentence up into two or more shorter ones.
In the following example, borrowed from the University of Wisconsin Writing Center, readers can get lost in the verbiage:
Prepositional phrase pile-up: It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the health of anyone with a history of a problem with disease of the heart that he or she should avoid the sort of foods with a high percentage of saturated fats.
Much Clearer: Anyone with a history of heart disease should avoid saturated fats.
3. Pronoun Reference. Pronouns work well when they stand in for specific nouns, but sometimes they are used to refer to vague, unnamed entities:
Unless there’s some mysterious it in the book, this is wrong. Who or what is the actor?
Better. Name that noun (and cite the source where that’s appropriate). Possibilities:
a. The book suggests that most sharks must move in order to breathe (Green).
b. Green’s study makes it clear that most sharks must move in order to breathe.
c. Most sharks must move in order to breathe (Green).
Ah, the great they, who must be pretty busy if all the statements attributed to them are true.
Better. Despite the heat wave, the travel brochures say that Seattle is a cool city and suggests packing sweaters.
Beware generic you. Let’s assume this is from a formal essay. When readers sees the word ‘you’, they tend to presume it is personally meant. Some readers may stop dead to do an internal check to see if the statement indeed applies. That causes the author to at least temporarily lose the reader. Edit to focus on issues and ideas.
Better. The Great Gatsby provides many insights into America’s jazz age.
Awkward possessives. Another kind of implied reference error occurs when writers try to make a possessive noun become an antecedent for a pronoun. Here’s an example:
Though it’s fairly obvious who he stands for, the reader can’t be sure, and the focus is off. The possessive (Mel’s) is not an adequate antecedent in this instance. Why? We do not know for sure that it’s Mel who falls. The pronoun he could, after all, refer to the producer, another actor, etc. Luckily, the fix is simple:
Mel falls off a waterfall in his new movie. He does his own stunts.
4. Agreement of number. While speakers say ‘they’ as a singular all the time, and listeners are used to hearing it, the pronoun is still not standard in formal written English. Sometimes it gets mixed with other pronouns, which can really get awkward.
Why would they all want to raise your hand when they need to poo? They can bloody well wipe themselves. What’s a good fix? Try these:
Those who need to go to the bathroom should just slip out quietly. There’s no reason to ask permission.
OR let the word you be understood:
Slip out quietly to use the bathroom. No permission is necessary.
If the topic needs to be singular and there is no specific person involved, then it’s fine to go with the pair: his or her (her or his, etc.). Otherwise, go plural: the students…they…
Better: To avoid transmitting diseases, plumbers should always wash their hands after coming into contact with used bathroom or kitchen equipment, septic tanks, and the like.
5. Avoiding gender bias: Write “The people…they” rather than “the
person…he,” unless discussing a particular (male) individual. Generic ‘he’ (or she) implies gender bias, presuming that the named sex is the default for the species. Implied gender bias:
Instead, go with generic plural:
RATHER WORDY: The firefighter should carry a respirator on his or her belt when entering a burning building.
BETTER: Firefighters should carry respirators on their belts when entering burning buildings.
A BIT AWKWARD: Babysitters should always get a telephone number to call in case they have questions or run into emergencies. [Possible misreading: They all share the same one emergency telephone number?]
BETTER: A babysitter should always get a telephone number to call in case there is a question or emergency.
6. Who/whom: Three easy-to-use rules so you’ll (almost) always write correctly
Rule #1: Substitute who/whom for I/me, he/him or she/her or they/their:
- Use who if it’s either I, he she, we, or they.
- Use whom if it’s me, him her, us, or them.
- With you, it’s a bit trickier. Pay attention to whether
- It’s the person performing the action: You did it, you fool! Who did it?
- It’s the person done to: Just look what he’s gone and done to you. He actually did that to whom? To whom did he do that?
- Also pay attention to whether the sentence is active or passive.
Active: Jack killed Jill. He killed her. Who killed her? Jack killed whom? Who killed whom?
Passive: Jill was killed by Jack. She was killed by him. Jill was killed by whom? Who was killed by whom? By whom was she killed?
Rule #2: Every verb with a tense (time frame) in a complete sentence must have a subject, even if it’s the offstage ‘you’ that is understood in direct address. Remember the game Clue from when you were a kid?
- Jack (the subject) killed Jill (the direct object) with a flower pot (object of the preposition) in the conservatory (object of the preposition).
- [You understood] Hand me (indirect object) that (direct object) flower pot! Now, we can turn it around: You want me to hand what to whom?
- Or make it more direct by turning ‘whom’ into the subject: Who gets the flower pot? “I do,” said Jack, “…and then Jill does!”
Pronouns after the verb are usually
- Objects of the preposition. A preposition is, my third grade teacher told me, any where or when a mouse can go: in, on, under, behind, after, before, etc. The object of the preposition tracks the person, place, or thing involved: in there, on that, after her.
- Direct objects are the victims or patients, the people or things done to. Mom, Jack hit me!
- Indirect objects. An indirect object precedes the direct object and tells to whom or for whom the action of the verb is done—who is receiving the direct object. Jill, hand me that flower pot, please. It can often be turned around and ‘to’ added: Hand that to me, please.
Understood ‘you’. In direct address the subject may not actually be stated,
though everyone knows who is meant. Example:
The player: [You understood] Hit me! (I’m saying I want to be dealt a card.)
The dealer: [Stupid or deliberately obtuse.] Hit whom? (Understood
is something like this: You want me to hit you, him, her, them, etc.?… Note that verb ‘hit’. The pronoun on the other side is the object or patient, the person or thing done to. Notice that this uses object pronouns (me, you, him, her, us, them, whom) rather than subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who). When substituting who/whom, it’s to hit whom?
Can you see why it cannot, absolutely positively cannot, be who?
Just substitute another of the subject pronouns, and you’ll see what
I mean. We’d need a sentence like this: “You want me to hit she.”
That would be really pretty silly.
Holiday gift giving:
- Rich person: Give the money to the most deserving
person. Hmmm. I think that’s him.
- Social Worker: You’re kidding! Whom do you honestly feel is the most deserving?
- Rich Person: Um… Never mind. Give it to whomever you like.
Note: Related to this rule is one that says this: The subject of a phrase is always attached to that phrase — no matter what. For example:
Ask whoever reads that book to them to answer any questions.
Break down the sentence this way:
- He reads that book to them — and answers any questions they might have.
- Whoever reads that book to them…
- He reads that book to whomever comes to story hour and answers any questions they [not them] might have.
Here’s another one:
- You ask him = You ask whom?
Continuing: Whom do you ask? or You ask whomever you like.
- He reads the book = Who reads the book. Never Whom!
If you remember these two rules — substitute he/him she/her, etc., and that every verb with a tense (a time frame) must have a subject — you
should solve the who/whom quandary every time.
If you apply those two rules and you’re still not sure, apply the all-important Rule #3.
Rule #3: Give it a sincere and honest effort to determine if it’s who or whom.
If it takes more than a 30 seconds to figure out, pick the one that sounds best to the ear (read it aloud) and move on. Why? Because when things get really tricky and complex, even grammarians are likely to squabble over which to use. But always — always — apply rules #1 and #2 before using Rule #3.
7. Reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, yourselves, ourselves, themselves) require a previous noun referent. Errors involving reflexives usually occur in the first person in a two person pairing. The problem comes when people become confused about whether to use the subject (I) or the object (me). Reflexives, like all pronouns, must have a clear previous referent, so they simply have to snap back to a previous noun or pronoun.
- Right: The -self pronoun is used only after a noun or pronoun
has been established for it.
- I hurt myself.
- He ate all the muffins. John and he at all the muffins. All the muffins were eaten by John and him. He ate all the muffins himself. They ate all the muffins themselves.
- John and Sarah enjoyed themselves at the concert. Sarah seems to have enjoyed herself the most, though.
- John and I played golf on Wednesday. The golf game involved the two of us. We involved ourselves fully
in the game.
- The IRS will audit the corporation and me.
The IRS will audit us.
- Wrong: In these examples, no prior noun or pronoun marker is set, so the
-self pronoun is illegal.
- Himself ate all the muffins.
Equally bad: The muffins were eaten by John and himself.
- John and myself played golf on Wednesday.
- The IRS will audit
the corporation and myself.
- The golf game involved John and myself.
The golf game involved only ourselves.
- Himself ate all the muffins.
up the clock, down the hill, after you, before bedtime, inside the wall
…and you can probably think of many more. Directionality in either time or space is what prepositions are all about: up, down, around, in, out, after, before, etc. Prepositions can be grouped with noun phrases or determined phrases (girl, pretty girl, mouse) or determined phrases (the mouse, a pretty girl, an elf). [back]
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The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Times Books, 1999.
Pullum, Geoffrey. “A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put.” Language Log. December 8, 2004. Web. Found 6 August 2014.
TheAK21. “Car Crash Pileup Photo” The Punk Effect. 22 July 2012. Web. Found 4 August 2014.
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Spradlin, Michael P. Jack and Jill Went Up to Kill: A Book of Zombie Nursery Rhymes. William Morrow. 2011. Web. Found 7 August 2014.