3.2 Pronouns


This section covers the following topics:

  • a pronoun’s job
  • fixing common pronoun problems

Pronouns cause more trouble than nouns.  To master pronouns, start by noticing the word “pronoun” has “noun” embedded in it.  That gives us a hint that they are related, and you already know what a noun is.

What Is a Pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun to avoid repetition.

Here is an example of how pronouns work:

Maria threw the boomerang and it came back to her.  (“it” and “her” are pronouns)

If there were no pronouns, writing and speaking would be tedious and repetitive.  The above sentence would be written like this:

Maria threw the boomerang and the boomerang came back to Maria.

The noun that is being replaced by the pronoun is called its antecedent.  “Maria” is the antecedent of “her” and “boomerang” is the antecedent of “it.”

Compared to nouns, there are very few pronouns.  Following is a pretty complete list.  Read through it to get familiar with the kind of words that work as pronouns.

all she no one they
another her nothing this
any hers one those
anyone herself our us
anybody I ours you
anything it ourselves your
both its several yours
each itself some yourself
either many somebody yourselves
everybody me someone we
everyone my something what
everything myself that which
few mine their whichever
he most theirs who
him neither them whom
himself nobody themselves whoever
his none these whomever

Pronouns can be divided into lots of different types:  personal, possessive, reflexive, intensive, indefinite, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, etc.  Don’t let that overwhelm you.  Pronouns all have the same basic job:  they replace nouns to avoid repetition.

Correcting Pronoun Errors

Pronoun errors are the second most common error in college writing (comma errors are #1), so it is worth your time to study pronouns and understand how to use them correctly.

The three most common pronoun errors are these:

  • unclear pronoun reference
  • lack of noun/pronoun agreement
  • shifts in person

Error #1: Unclear Pronoun Reference

If we don’t understand which noun the pronoun has replaced, that is called an unclear pronoun reference.  For example:

Before syncing my phone with my laptop, I deleted everything on it.  (What does the pronoun “it” refer to?  The phone or the laptop?  This is an example of an unclear pronoun reference.)

A clearer explanation would be this:

I deleted everything on my phone before syncing it with my laptop. (Now “it” clearly refers to the phone.)


People in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities often use the pronoun “they” to refer to one person.  In the past, we would not say, “Mason has a new cat because they love cats.”  Traditional grammar required a singular pronoun when referring to a singular noun.  But respect for an individual’s identity is an important part of the evolution of language.

Don’t assume which pronoun a person uses.  It is okay to politely ask people their pronoun.

Error #2: Lack of Noun/Pronoun Agreement

Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns to which they refer.  If the noun is singular, the pronoun replacing it should also be singular.  If the noun is plural, the pronoun replacing it should be plural.  For example:

  • The parrot (singular) sat on its (singular) perch.
  • The parrots (plural) sat on their (plural) perches.

When referring to several people, it can be tempting to avoid sexist language by using both male and female pronouns rather than defaulting to male.  For example:

  • Sexist:  An actor must share his emotions.
  • Not sexist, but awkward:  An actor must share her or his emotions.
  • A better fix:  Actors must share their emotions.

Although many singular pronouns in English reflect a specific gender (he, she, him, her), most plural pronouns do not (they, them, their, we, us).

Error #3: Shifts in Person

To understand what “person” means, imagine a conversation between three people.  The first person would speak using “I.”  That person would talk to a second person using “you.”  When they talk about a third person, they use “he,” “she” or “they.”

  • First person pronouns:  I, me, mine, we, us, ours
  • Second person pronouns:  you, yours
  • Third person pronouns:  he, him, his, she, her, they, them, theirs, one, anyone, it, its

First, second, and third person should not be incorrectly mixed.  That is called “shifts in person.”  For example:


Don’t use second person (“you”) in college or business writing.  It is too casual.  Use first person (“I”) or third person (“she,” “he,” “them”) instead.

With our delivery service, customers can pay for their groceries when ordering or when you receive them. (“Customers” is third person, so “you,” which is second person, is a shift in person.)

Here is how the sentence should read:

With our delivery service, customers can pay when they order or when they receive the groceries.”

Three More Quick Pronoun Guidelines

  1. The words “who,” “whom,” and “whose” refer only to people.  The word “which” refers to things.  The word “that” can refer to people or things.  Never write “I have a dog who bites.”
  2. To decide whether to use “me” or “I,” take out the other person’s name and see if the sentence sounds right:  “The teacher looked at Maria and I.” sounds wrong. “The teacher looked at Maria and me.” is correct.
  3. Never put a pronoun directly after a noun.  For example: “Christine she went to work earlier than usual.”  Delete either the pronoun “she” or the noun “Christine.”

The above information should give you everything you need to use pronouns correctly.  Study the information until you actually understand it.

Exercise 1 Pronoun Errors — Instructions

  • Correct any pronoun errors.
  • Don’t guess.
  • Refer to the information above and figure out the correct answer.
  • Select the errors you see in the activity.
  • Click on the check button check your work.

Exercise 1 Activity

Exercise 2 Identify the Pronouns – Instructions

  • The sentences you worked with in Chapter 3.1 Exercise 1 are repeated here.
  • The nouns are highlighted using bold text.
  • Look for any words in the sentences that are pronouns.
  • Most sentences have nouns, but some sentences will have pronouns.
  • Click to select words you think are pronouns.
  • Click on the check button check your work.

Exercise 2 – Activity


  • A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun to avoid repetition.
  • Pronoun errors are very common and include unclear pronoun reference, noun/pronoun agreement problems, and shifts in person.


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