Core Grammar #6: Pronoun Reference

Pronouns

Pronouns, those little words that take the place of nouns in many sentences, are a of the part of the English language that seems to be changing most rapidly, and the part where teenage spoken English is most different from academic written English. To be fair, many of the issues I'll discuss on this page also show up in informal writing, some of it from respectable sources, so it isn't just a USA teenager thing. Teen talk does press the issue to the extreme, though.

The classic pattern

Standard English pronouns stand in for nouns and have person, number, gender, and case to help the reader figure out which noun to look back to. We generally look back to the most recent noun that agrees to figure out what the pronoun is standing in for:

George and Martha went out for dinner to celebrate his birthday.

It was George's birthday, not Martha's, because of the masculine gender of his. Here's the standard setup:

  1. First person: I, me, my, we, us, our. The person actually writing or speaking is part of the pronoun reference.
  2. Second person: You, your. This refers to one or many people who are actually listening to the speech or reading the paper:
    You must turn in your homework on time.
  3. Third person:
    1. Masculine singular: He, him, his. Refers to one male who is not the speaker/writer or the listener/reader.
    2. Feminine singular: She, her, hers. Refers to one female who is not the speaker/writer or the listener/reader.
    3. Plural: They, them, their. Refers to more than one. The group does not include the speaker/writer or the listener/reader. There's no gender specified.

Straightening out confusion

When more than one person gets involved in a sentence, some writers panic. He or him? I or me?

The solution is to simplify things temporarily. (A rule in academic and business English, but not always in informal spoken English, is that you use the same form whether one person is in the sentence or more than one.)

The problem sentence:

Take George out of the sentence for a moment:

Few English speakers would buy that sentence, so the correct form is "Max gave the book to George and me."

Another problem sentence:

Simplifying again, we get:

Few English speakers would use either one of those, so the one you want is "He and I went to the store."

(Note: In a list like this, the speaker goes last, so even though down-home English might be OK with "Me and him went to the store," academic/business English says "He and I went to the store.")

Standard chit-chat

English doesn't have a pronoun that says "one person, but I don't want to specify gender," so even a very educated speaker is very likely to say, "Someone left their book in the class." The one of someone demands a singular pronoun, and we used to default to masculine, but that's not politically acceptable any more, and his/her is awkward, so speakers usually go for the plural to stay out of trouble, and in this case there's no chance for confusion.

"They" for only one person?

The problems with just using "they/them/their" as a singular pronoun are first, that extremely careful writers and speakers see it as an error (It's the kind of thing that might get your job application rejected) and second that the pronouns are still plural, so confusion results when you have singular and plural antecedents in the text:

Parents think that they should have control over the pregnant teenager's decision [concerning abortion], but in reality it's ultimately not their decision at all. Even though the teenager is still young, they made the decision to have it and it is up to them as to what they will do with the baby. The parents believe that they know the best decision for them but what they don't know is what their teenager wants. The final decision of the fate of the baby will, in the end, come down to the pregnant teenager.

This little quotation has one singular female (the pregnant teenager) and one group (the parents). Obviously, because of the they and them:

Only that last little sentence shows that the student wrote exactly the opposite of what she wanted to say. I think it's very sad that the writer didn't have the singular feminine pronouns available so she could write this:

Even though the teenager is still young, she made the decision to have it and it is up to her as to what she will do with the baby. The parents believe that they know the best decision for her but what they don't know is what their teenager wants.

(Note: The way the paragraph was originally written, the parents knew what was the best decision for themselves. Maybe that's what the writer originally meant, but by changing one word to her, I completely changed the focus: Now the question in the parents' mind is what is the best decision for the daughter. Are the parents being self-centered in this decision or considering the daughter's welfare? We don't know—and the original author hasn't told us.)

You/your

This one is also related to informal conversation. Though "you" and "your" technically mean the reader or listener, in casual conversation and writing the pronoun often means "people in general" or even "the writer of this paper." Most of the time, the effect is simply casual, informal, and non-businesslike, but sometimes disaster results:

One of the saddest events in the life of a middle-aged woman is when her breasts sag down to your navel.

It's possible to overdo things.

Spoken (and written) English tends to prefer object forms over subject forms, and has been using "they" as a singular pronoun for hundreds of years. I recently ran into grammar handbook quizzes asking students to supply the correct pronoun in sentences such as these:

The correct answer for the first one is The winner is he. Nobody but an English grammar scholar would think of saying it that way; almost everyone would say The winner is him. (The problem here is that he is the subject of the sentence.) For that first sentence, you have three obvious choices:

  1. Go with "The winner is him" and hope that your audience is somewhat relaxed about grammar rules. (risky on job applications, etc.)
  2. Write the correct, but very weird sounding "The winner is he."
  3. Rearrange things and put the subject back at the front of the sentence where we expect it: "He is the winner."

The second one, as I wrote it, has no correct answer which would satisfy the grammar perfectionist:

  1. "Someone left his book on the table" and "Someone left her book on the table" both assume that only one possible gender is in the book-leaving business. (That could be possible in a girls' school or in the boys' locker room.)
  2. "Someone left their book on the table" has a disagreement between the singular someone and the plural their. This is the most idiomatic way to say it, but the grammar perfectionist would object.
  3. "Someone left his/her book on the table" works, but it is terrible style and sounds too much like a legal contract.
  4. As above, the best answer, and a totally correct one, is to do a rewrite to get the personal possessive pronoun out of the last part of the sentence: "Someone left a book on the table."

The cure

It's audience awareness. Always ask yourself whether the audience will quickly and easily figure this out. Or will you mislead them with a strategy that works in speaking but not in writing?

And don't retreat into defensiveness. Don't say, "Well if they were as smart as I am, they could figure this out" or "If they knew as much as I know about the topic, they would understand." They don't. Your job is to inform people, so take it seriously and eliminate all the false pathways and confusions in your writing.

Overcorrection

More than one student has told me that written pronouns are correct when they feel "off balance and awkward." That's not much of a guide, though standard usage will feel odd if your original language was far from standard. Here are a couple of problems that keep coming up:

It is OK to say "me"

Me isn't informal. It's just the object form. So are him and her.

"Whom" isn't just high-class academic language

The word is vanishing from common use, but when you use it, save it for objects. You aren't sounding educated when you just throw it into a sentence; you sound ignorant.

"Myself" is not a fancy way of saying "I" or "me"

The word has two uses: reflexive (an action that comes back on the speaker) and intensive.

One source comments:

The word shouldn't appear as a substitute for I or me (my wife and myself were delighted to see you). Using it that way is thought somehow to be modest, as if the reference were less direct. Yet it's no less direct, and this use may cause the reader to assume your are trying to be funny—or that you are somewhat foolish.

More information:


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 10/22/18 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.