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Pronoun Errors

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Pronouns

Pop Quiz: Worst "Case" Scenario
Selfsame Errors: Intensive / Reflexive Pronoun Errors
Pronoun Agreement Errors

  • Case Error
  • Number Agreement Error
  • Person Agreement
  • Linking Verbs

Pronoun Reference Errors

  • Ambiguity
  • Vagueness

As in real life, the substitutions that pronouns make don't always go as smoothly as you think they will. Consider the information on this page a kind of "disaster preparedness" kit.

WORST "CASE" SCENARIOS

What is wrong with the following?
There has been a long-standing feud between her and I which, even though we live together, everyone has learned to accept. When me and her first met, we had an instant attraction to each other. Unfortunately, we sometimes let the heart choose whoever it wants, and worry about the consequences later. Over time, she and myself started to become more aware of one another's little habits. We stopped ourself from going to parties together, because we knew we would kill other people's fun. One friend even withdrew hisself from us altogether. However, eventually he started separately inviting us to his dinner parties and it inspired our other friends to follow suit. Now, I hold myself dinner parties where she remains upstairs, alone, while we dine together, and she will do the same on other days. Some have asked, "Why don't they separate and live by theirselves?" I have no answer,except I've become used to it. As the saying goes, "Sometimes living with the enemy you know is better than sleeping with the lover you don't."
 

When we speak casually among ourselves, we’re not really judging one another that much on how correct our grammar is. Pronouns, probably more than any other parts of speech,seem to “get a pass” in everyday, colloquial communication because the give-and-take of casual conversation has a way of calibrating the context as we go along, which corrects or forgives any errors that might have been made. In writing, though, when we’re not there to stick up for our writing or adjust the context for our readers, pronouns have to be precise all on their own.

This page examines a number of typical pronoun errors that fall into three categories:

pronoun malapropisms;

agreement mistakes; and,

reference errors.

SELFSAME ERRORS

The following reflexive and intensive pronouns don't really exist. They are all mistakes of declension. Except for "hisself" (whose base personal pronoun "he" follows the same rules of declension as "who"), they all suffer from a number agreement error ("our" is plural and "self" is singular, for instance.) Therefore, these pronouns are malapropisms and should never be used:

  • hisself
  • ourself
  • theirself
  • itselves

PRONOUN AGREEMENT ERRORS

Pronoun agreement errors—pronouns that don't represent, or agree with, their antecedents correctly—are among the most common errors of grammar in college level writing. There are three ways in which pronouns may be incorrect, and they correspond to the three ways in which pronouns are identified: in number, in person, and in case.

Pronoun Case Errors

Conversational English makes many allowances for pronoun case errors because, in the spontaneous flow of dialogue and everyday interaction, no one stops to demand correct grammar. Writing, on the other hand, is not spontaneous; it can be reread or read slowly, and these mistakes are more glaring indications of the writer's poor command of English. The most common pronoun case errors confuse the subject case with object case, or misuse the reflexive case.

Subject-Object Case Errors

I made him promise to keep this delicate matter between him and I.
Me and Terrence camped in Yosemite over the weekend.

  

Reflexive Case Errors

This application should be filled out by yourself only.
Samantha, Peter and myself are now roommates.
Her friends respect herself more than she does.
Number Agreement

When a plural pronoun does not agree with its singular antecedent, most often it is because the writer is trying to avoid sexism. The English language has only awkward solutions for pronouns whose antecedents are of an unknown gender, but pairing a plural third-person pronoun with a singular antecedent is still not a grammatical way to deal with this shortcoming. Observe:

If a student parks a car on campus, they have to buy a parking sticker.

 

True, we don't know the gender of the student in this sentence who's parking a car on campus, but we do know that it's just one student, so the plural 3rd person pronoun, "they," is a poor substitute for "student." For some reason, novice writers are flummoxed by this problem, even though the solutions are fairly simple, straightforward, and adequately varied.

Option 1:
Pick a gender and use a singular third person pronoun. While there may be a nineteenth and twentieth century precedent for choosing the masculine pronoun over the feminine, in this day and age, such sexist and antiquated thinking is actually a liability to the tone of your academic writing. It's acceptable to choose either gender, as long as you use them with consistency:

If a student parks a car on campus, she has to purchase a parking sticker.

 

Option 2:

Make, both, the antecedent and the 3rd person pronoun plural:

Whenever students park their cars on campus, they have to purchase parking stickers.

 

Option 3:

Avoid pronouns altogether. No pronouns mean no pronoun agreement errors—simple as that:

Whenever a student parks a car on campus, a parking sticker should be purchased.
Whenever a car is parked on campus, a parking sticker is required.
Parking a car on campus requires that a parking sticker be purchased.
Person Agreement

When the person of the pronoun (first-, second-, or third-person) is inconsistent with its antecedent, or shifts arbitrarily, this is an error of pronoun person agreement. Take, for example, the following sentence:

When students come to class late, you should at least have your homework ready.

 

The subject of this sentence is the 2nd person pronoun "you," but the antecedent is the plural noun "students." Under normal circumstance, we would use "they," not "you," to refer to "students," because "students" implies the 3rd person, not the second. This speaker has set the tone that he is is talking about the students, meaning they are in a 3rd person perspective, yet the pronoun "you" implies that he's speaking directly to the students in the 2nd person perspective. Something does not compute.

To sort out the error, we need to make, both, the pronoun and its antecedent be the same person perspective. We can either make both of them singular, or make both of them plural:

When a student comes to class late, he should at least have his homework ready.
When students come to class, they should at least have their homework ready.
Note:

In the second correction above, note that the possessive adjective "their" also now agrees with "students" and "they." Even though “their” is a possessive adjective, it declines the way other personal pronouns do. Therefore, it is subject to the rules of agreement. You'll need to be watchful of issues like this, because one pronoun change may require other corresponding alterations.

Here's yet another example of person agreement gone wrong:

Over the course of your life, we can expect our hearts to beat 2.6 billion times.

 

"Your" is a 2nd person possessive adjective that does not jibe with the 1st person subject of the sentence, "we." To fix the error, once again the writer should make both, the pronoun and the possessive adjective modifying the antecedent, the same person perspective:

Over the course of our life, we can expect our hearts to beat 2.6 billion times.

 

Take note that the word "life" doesn't suddenly become "lives" just because the plural 1st person possessive adjective is now being used. In fact, "your" in the incorrect version of this sentence was also a plural possessive adjective. "Life" in this context means "life in general," a non-count noun. For this reason, it doesn't become the plural "lives." However, reconciling the plural and singular forms of the nouns you modify with possessive adjectives will be necessary at some point in your proofreading and revision efforts. Look out for this issue.

You should keep in mind that the problem of pronoun agreement is related to the problem of pronoun shift, which is explained further below. The major difference between the two is that pronoun shift is a matter of inconsistent pronoun person throughout a work of prose, rather than in just a single sentence.

Linking Verbs

Unlike most other verbs, Linking Verbs reiterate the subject of the clause with another noun (as in the case of appositive phrases; see above) or with a modifier. When pronouns are used with linking verbs, they must use the subject case, not the object case. There is no exception to this rule in formal and academic writing. For instance,

I thought they were speaking about my friend, but, in truth, it was me.

 

In this compound sentence, "it" is the subject of the second main clause. The link verb "was" joins a complement pronoun "me" back to the subject. Therein lies the problem, for a linking verb complement noun is also called the "predicate nominative": the use of the subject where the object would ordinarily go. That means the object case pronoun, "me," is not right for this verb. Rather, the sentence should read,

I thought they were speaking about my friend, but, in truth, it [the subject of their conversation] was I.

 

This error occurs just as often in other pronoun persons. For instance,

When the switchboard operator asked to speak to Mary Donaldson, I said, "Yes, this is her."

In this example, the demonstrative pronoun "this" occupies the subject of the clause in the quote, and the linking verb that follows it should lead to a complement pronoun in the subject case as well, not the object case:

When the switchboard operator asked to speak to Mary Donaldson, I said, "Yes, this is she."

These may seem like fussy and trivial matters to you because you're accustomed to your everyday speech committing all the mistakes listed above, and not a single one of your family, friends, or employers has ever corrected you. Fair enough. However, writing— college writing—is not speech, and your forgiving loved ones and colleagues are not evaluating you. Rather, your peers are your instructors and other academics, and the writing has to communicate clearly and grammatically on its own. For this reason, you need to remind yourself not to take any such mistakes of pronoun agreement as a personal matter, but instead try to foster another version of yourself and your voice in your writing—one that shows respect and concern for the precision with which grammar and language are used. Good grammar in college writing means good style as well as orderly and effective thinking.

PRONOUN REFERENCE ERRORS

Ambiguity

The prefix "ambi-" means "both" in Latin. Ambiguity occurs when there are two or more possible meanings. When a pronoun has two or more possible antecedents, but it is unclear which is the right one, this causes a pronoun reference error.

Ambiguity and Multiple Antecedents

A sentence containing too many potential antecedents for a single pronoun frequently leads to ambiguous pronoun reference. For instance,

When a president carefully selects a Supreme Court Justice, he is sworn to impartiality in his judgment.

Does this sentence mean a president is sworn to impartiality, or a Supreme Court Justice is sworn to impartiality? Unless there's some clue in the context of the sentence, readers cannot easily resolve pronoun reference ambiguity resulting from multiple antecedents. It falls to you to make sure your meaning is clearly understood and your pronouns can be clearly traced back to their antecedents:

When carefully selected by a president, a Supreme Court Justice is sworn to impartiality in his judgment.
Sworn to impartiality in his judgment, a president carefully selects a Supreme Court Justice.
Ambiguity and Misplaced Modifiers
Ambiguous pronoun references are very similar to misplaced modifiers. (See "Modifier Errors.") In fact, quite often, ambiguous pronoun references and misplaced modifiers will be part of the same confusion in a sentence. For example,
Average citizens have made great strides toward maintaining democracy in their own way.
  

In this example, the antecedent of the possessive adjective "their" may be either "average citizens" or "great strides." However, "their" lies inside a phrase that suffers from the same confusion: are the average citizens acting "in their own way," or are the great strides being made "in their own way"? The solution to the ambiguous pronoun reference is bound up with the need to move "in their own way" to a more helpful location in the sentence, closer to the noun it's supposed to modify. Either one of the following will commit the sentence to a clearer context.

Average citizens in their own way have made great strides toward maintaining democracy.
Average citizens have made great strides in their own way toward maintaining democracy.

VAGUENESS

Vagueness occurs when the antecedent of a pronoun cannot be found anywhere in the same sentence.

Pronoun Vagueness and Missing Antecedents
When a pronoun's antecedent does not exist in the sentence, and there is no context for it in the preceding sentence, we declare the antecedent to be M.I.A., missing in action:
In the Judicial branch of government, they should be selected for their impartiality.

In this example, both "branch" and "government" are singular nouns. Granted, a case could be made for "government" to be a collective noun—if we were in the U.K. However, this still would not solve the problem, for one does not elect a whole government, nor a branch of government. One selects politicians and leaders, and, in the Judicial branch of government, one appoints judges, which is an apt antecedent for the pronouns "they" and "their":

When judges are appointed the Judicial branch of government, they should be selected for their impartiality.

This next example illustrates one of the most common forms of pronoun vagueness, in which conditions, processes, and phenomena are confused and described with adverb clauses instead of noun clauses:

Advertising is when they try to make us want products and services we do not necessarily need.

Advertising is not a "when," but a "what." Consequently, it's not an appropriate antecedent for a 3rd person plural pronoun like "they." To fix it, we need to rethink the entire relationship expressed in the sentence, and either introduce a word that can be a plural antecedent, or change the pronoun to suit the word "advertising":

Advertisers succeed when they try to make us want products and services we do not necessarily need.
Advertising is that which tries to make us want products and services we do not necessarily need.

Pronoun Vagueness and Dangling Modifiers

Vague pronoun reference bears a resemblance to dangling modifiers. (See "Modifier Errors.") As a matter of fact, one may often find ambiguous pronoun references in modifying phrases that dangle:

Preparing for dinner, it took almost an entire hour to scrub the pots from last night's kitchen disaster.

The solution is either to add something into the sentence that can be modified by the dangling modifier, or change the pronoun in a way that allows it to be modified by the dangling modifier:

Preparing for dinner, we took almost an entire hour to scrub the pots from last night's kitchen disaster.

Pronoun Vagueness in Quoted Sources
In quotations, sometimes pronoun vagueness occurs when the original antecedent is not part of your quote. In these cases, for the sake of clarity only, you are expected to identify the antecedent in brackets next to the relevant pronoun (as you would an appositive noun), or replace the pronoun altogether with its antecedent in brackets:

Examples:

In the introduction to his biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann states that he followed the controversial modernist author’s own “prescription of total candor, with the knowledge that his [Joyce’s] life, like Rousseau’s, can bear others’ scrutiny as it bore his own."
Ellmann goes onto state that, by revising his definitive biography of James Joyce, he felt his “affection for [Joyce] renewed.”

In the first example, the second occurrence of the pronoun “his” (“it bore his own”) does not require clarification, since its antecedent is now understood by virtue of the precedent set earlier in the sentence.

Last Updated: 02/18/2015
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