July 2, 2002
First step in understanding pronouns: Find the referent or antecedent of the pronoun. The referent is the person or thing to which the pronoun refers. Grammar teachers often use the word antecedent, which roughly means to come before. The referent almost always occurs in the discourse before the pronoun, but not always. Consider:
In spite of his fears, Matt L. arrived at work on time with his radical new haircut.
To understand what a pronoun refers to, search for its referent. When writing, make sure that the referents of any pronouns that you use are clear. [This discussion concerns the deictic aspect of pronouns.]
First problem: There are a small number of cases in which it is OK to use a pronoun with no antecedent. Words called expletives serve as dummy subjects (or, referent-less pronouns). Standard English has two expletives: it and there. There are two kinds of dummy it: impersonal it and anticipatory it. Impersonal it is the it that you find in weather phrases and such places. You can't figure out what it means, and yet there is no other grammatical way to say the sentence. With anticipatory it, there is usually a clause that could serve as the subject of the sentence if the sentence were rewritten without it. [More on this strategy in the pragmatics lecture.]
There was a dog running across the street.
impersonal: It is raining.
anticipatory It is clear that Al's beard is a mistake.
(That Al's beard is a mistake is clear.)
Second step: Singular vs. Plural Singular pronouns replace singular nouns (or pronouns); plural pronouns replace plural nouns (or pronouns). See Dummies page 121-2 for list of singular and plural pronouns.
Third step: Singular vs. Plural Possessive Pronouns Possessive pronouns indicate who owns what. Use a singular pronoun if one person/thing owns something; use a plural pronoun if more than one person/thing own something. See Dummies page 123 for list.
Second Problem: Notice the box on page 124. The use of they and their as plural pronouns only was first called 'standard' in the 18th century. Before that, people used they and their to refer to both singular and plural nouns. In fact, we still do. These days, such usage is fairly common in everyday speech, but not fully accepted in formal writing and formal speaking.
To avoid pronoun reference errors:
clear what car you're referring to.
To avoid pronoun number errors:
Everyone is crazy.
Something is amiss.
Nobody is listening.
Everyone showed his or her patriotism by flying a flag.
*Everyone showed their patriotism by flying a flag.
Each of these kids is going to the baseball game with her or his mother.
In the 18th century, (male) grammarians decided that the masculine universal system should be used. That is, masculine pronouns could refer to men only or to all people. This practice has recently come under fire by feminists.
Frankly, I think that the language mavens should protest this practice, too. Consider the ambiguity it causes. "All men are created equal." Now, is this supposed to be a case of masculine universal or an actual masculine group represented by masculine pronoun? (In practice, it was the latter for almost 150 years!)
The debate over sexist pronoun usage is a hot topic. The most reasonable course of action for language users these days is to use 'his or her'-type constructions, or to recast the sentence so that you can use 'their' or a genderless determiner, or to alternate between masculine and feminine pronoun usage when a singular pronoun is required. You risk offending the audience if you use exclusively the masculine universal (feminists will hate you) or the feminine universal (sounds strange to many and some men can't tolerate being referred to as women). Further, pickier folks will protest a gender neutral pronoun if it's plural and the context calls for a singular one.
who vs. whom
The difference between these two pronouns is their respective cases. Use who in subject position. Use whom in object positions (object of a transitive verb; object of a preposition). In addition, some people object to sentence-initial whom, even if it is in objective case.
Be specific in your pronoun use. Be careful when you edit: changing one sentence or phrase may require you to change others. If you alter the antecedent, you may need to alter the pronoun! See examples on Dummies page 300.
We can get a little more technical about antecedents. Syntactically speaking, personal subject pronouns and possessive pronouns behave differently.
A c-commands B iff the first branching node that dominates A also dominates B.
A and B are coindexed if they have the same index.
A binds B iff A c-commands B and A and B are coindexed.
A is free if it is not bound.
Personal pronouns must be free.
All this means that:
Donne talks about death in his poetry.
In his poetry, Donne talks about death.
He talks about death in Donne's poetry. (means someone talks in Donne's poetry)
*In Donne's poetry, he talks about death. (where Donne and he refer to the same man)
relative pronouns and subject-verb agreement
Lulu is one of the few choir members who has/have more than 11 tattoos.
Lulu is the only one of the choir members who has/have more than 11 tattoos.
clarifying vague pronoun reference
this, that, which should refer to a noun (or pronoun), not a sentence or paragraph. see Dummies page 303. (If you get stuck in writing, try to use this/that as a demonstrative rather than pronoun. You can say this conflict, this statement, etc.) Sometimes one of these can stand for a proposition (usually in speech) but don't try it in writing.
pronouns for collective nouns
Collective nouns may take a singular or plural pronoun depending on if the noun acts as a group or as individual members of a group. (examples page 304)
There are dialectal differences at work here. In British English, plurals are used where a singular is required in American English. These forms are considered standard in their respective dialects.
British/Australian My family are camping.
American My family is camping.
pronouns with company names
A company is a singular noun, and it should be represented by a singular pronoun (it not they).
Misuse of 'myself'
There's for 'there are'
Overall loss of subjunctive but increase/change in use of 'would be'
"How scary is that?"
Verbs of quotation go, be like, etc.