Pronouns are indispensable; they replace nouns in our conversation and writing, keeping us from saying things like this:
My instructor arrived late to class. My instructor claimed that the child care center opened late and that was why my instructor, in turn, was late; however, a classmate said that the classmate saw the instructor at the coffee bar at 8:00, and that the instructor greeted the classmate as the instructor strolled toward the classroom.
Clearly, a few he's and she's would help this narrative. Of course, if both the instructor and the classmate are females, we might end up with some confusion. Unclear pronoun reference, along with a mismatch between the pronoun and its referent (or antecedent, the word the pronoun is intended to replace), are issues that frequently cause students trouble. Avoid most pronoun reference problems by following these rules:
Make pronouns agree in person and number with their antecedents.
Make pronouns gender-neutral when possible.
Make pronouns refer unambiguously to their intended referents.
Make sure the pronoun referent actually appears nearby.
1. Agreement in person and number
Pronouns must match the person and number of the words they replace. (Pronouns must, in addition, match case. Case refers to whether a pronoun is a subject [I know this!] or object [Tell me more.] in a sentence. Choosing the correct case is not a big problem for native speakers of English, who usually know instinctively which pronoun to use in most instances. For information about pronoun case see the TIP Sheet "Pronouns.")
First person pronouns are all those that can refer to the speaker(s): I, me, we, us. Second person pronouns refer to the person(s) spoken to: you. And third person pronouns refer to what is spoken of: he, him, she, her, it, they, them. Some of these pronouns are singular-I, me, you, he, him, she, her, it. And some are plural-we, us, you, they, them. There are a great many more pronouns, all of them with person and number. The trick is to make pronouns agree, in both person and number, with their antecedents. Singular antecedents take singular pronouns in the appropriate person. Plural antecedents take plural pronouns in the appropriate person.
The election was a watershed; it brought voters out in droves. (third person singular)
Voters stood in line for hours waiting for their turn at the ballots. (third person plural)
Each was eager to take part, knowing he or she was part of an historic event. (third person singular)
We were a little anxious, for it was our first experience with touch screen voting. (first person plural)
A prepositional phrase following an antecedent, or referent, has no effect on a following personal pronoun, which still must match the referent itself:
One of the boys left his soccer ball here.
Though boys is plural, the pronoun in this sentence must agree with the singular referent one (here the subject of the sentence. For more about using prepositional phrases to help identify sentence subjects, see TIP Sheet "Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases").
Agreement in person and number is trickier with indefinite pronouns. Like the personal pronouns listed above, indefinite pronouns also have person and number–it's their number that causes confusion. In general, any pronoun that ends with –body (anybody, everybody) or –one (someone, everyone) is singular, no matter how much you feel that it should be plural:
Somebody from the girls' soccer team left her cleats on the field.
Everyone on the girls' team wants to play indoor soccer when this season ends to keep up her conditioning.
Other (usually) singular indefinite pronouns are each, either, and neither:
It's such a fast game, neither of the girls wants to play goalie for her team.
Each of the boys has received a sports scholarship to his preferred college.
On the other hand, some indefinite pronouns, such as none, can go either way depending on whether they refer to count or non-count nouns:
None of the students will want to defer their education for another year. (plural, because none is talking about students-a count noun.)
None goes to waste; it is all time well spent. (singular, because none here is about a quantity of time-a non-count noun.)
For a more complete list of indefinite pronouns, see a writer's guide such as SF Writer, or the TIP Sheet "Pronouns."
Other tricky words are collective nouns, for example jury, team, society. Collective nouns, though they represent groups, are singular when the members act as one:
The soccer team was like an extended family to its members.
Our society values its sports heroes more than its civil servants.
On the other hand, if a group is acting as individuals or at cross purposes, a collective noun becomes plural:
As soon as the judge read the verdict, the hung jury issued their statements.
Sometimes a pronoun refers to a compound subject. When a compound subject is joined by and, it is plural and takes a plural pronoun:
Jack and Jill were unable to play because of their injuries.
When a compound subject is joined by nor/or (often accompanied by neither or either, which in any case are themselves singular pronouns), the pronoun reference is singular:
Amy or Miya will be at her computer tomorrow.
2. Gender neutral pronouns
Even though most of us understand that mankind means all of us, male and female, and that the generic he, like man, refers to both men and women, it is a recent innovation that pronouns must, whenever possible, be chosen so as to be gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. There are various clumsy ways to accomplish this, since in English there exists no gender-neutral pronoun in third person singular (except it, which is inappropriate in reference to a person). To comply with this practice, try using both male and female pronoun references:
Each student took his or her place at a computer station.
This method becomes awkward if there are a great many of these references. Another way, therefore, to avoid a gender-exclusive pronoun is to change the antecedent to a plural if possible, and use a plural pronoun reference:
All the students took their places at the computer stations.
A third way to avoid this so-called "sexist" language is to alternate pronoun reference between he's and she's–this is actually the preferred solution at some general circulation magazines (look up their writers' guidelines, or read a few magazine articles on childcare, for instance, and see for yourself)!
Admittedly, gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language makes a certain amount of sense in some contexts, for instance in the example below, where the intended implication is to point out that the privilege of suffrage is extended to males and females as equals:
Voters stood in line for hours waiting for their turn at the ballots. Each was eager to take part, knowing he or she was part of an historic event.
At this time the use of gender-neutral language is undergoing discussion and evolution. Some people are trying to invent a new, gender-neutral personal pronoun, while others are calling for a return to their as a singular pronoun–the way most of us use it in conversation anyway, as in Everybody took their turn (it may be technically incorrect, but it sure has numbers going for it!). For more information than you imagined existed on this subject, start with the University of Texas website http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html. Meanwhile, if you are unclear how to handle gender issues in your own papers, ask if your instructor has a preference.
3. Unambiguous reference
The referent must appear prior to the pronoun that refers to it. It may appear in a nearby sentence if the reference is clear enough. Below, Mr. Piluso is the referent for all the he's and him's, while Mai is the referent for the she's and her's:
Mr. Piluso arrived late to class. He claimed that the child care center opened late and that was why he, in turn, was late. But Mai said that she saw him at the coffee bar at 8:00, and that he greeted her as he strolled toward the classroom.
However, if there are two possible referents and if there is a possibility that a reader will misunderstand which is intended, revise the sentence. For example, in the sentence below, clearly two females interact; but who greeted whom, and who strolled to class?
She said she saw her at the coffee bar at 8:00, and she greeted her as she strolled toward the classroom.
It is necessary to replace some of these pronouns; the various she's must be named before the pronouns which refer to them. In addition, they must be identified as many times as necessary to avoid confusion:
Mai said she saw Ms. Kloss at the coffee bar at 8:00; Mai greeted her as Ms. Kloss strolled to class. (Ms. Kloss, alas, is in no hurry.)
Mai said she saw Ms. Kloss at the coffer bar at 8:00; Mai greeted her as she strolled to class. (Now Mai is the one strolling to class.)
4. Missing referents
The pronoun's referent must actually appear (indefinite pronouns such as someone and everyone are an exception). They and it commonly appear without proper antecedents, as in the following examples:
On the news it said Chairman Arafat died of natural causes.
At the bed and breakfast, they don't allow pets.
The missing referent of the first sentence may be news or reporter. The missing referent of the second sentence might be managers or owners. One of these words should appear in the sentence, or the sentence should be revised to eliminate the orphan pronoun:
The news was that Chairman Arafat died of natural causes; NBC reported it first.
On the news, the reporter said Chairman Arafat died of natural causes.
The owners of the bed and breakfast told us they don't allow pets.
At the bed and breakfast, the owners don't allow pets.
You may use the pronoun you without a referent only if you are actually referring to your reader (as we just did); you may not use it to refer to people in general. For formal writing, avoid you and substitute one (it's gender-neutral, by the way):
One never knows what one can expect of dogs and cats on vacation.
Don't overuse one–it tends to sound stuffy in American English. If by you you mean people in general, choose another word: people, society, everyone, most Americans.
A pronoun may not usually refer to a possessive word. In the following example, therefore, the referent is missing:
In the staff's opinion, the contract offers them distinct advantages.
The intended referent of them is staff; however, staff's, as a possessive, is ineligible. Revise to add the missing referent, or eliminate the pronoun:
The staff believe the contract offers them distinct advantages.
In the staff's opinion, the contract offers distinct advantages.
However, a possessive may be the antecedent of another possessive:
The union's solidarity increased its bargaining power.
Relative clauses beginning with which often lack referents; the pronoun which must refer to a particular word or at most, a noun phrase; it may not refer to an entire clause. In the following sentence, therefore, which lacks an antecedent:
English 11 was not offered, which created a hardship for seniors.
Revise this sentence by adding a specific referent, or eliminate the which clause altogether:
English 11 was not offered, a situation which created a hardship for seniors.
English 11 was not offered, thus creating a hardship for seniors.
For more information on the use of relative pronouns such as this and which, see the TIP Sheet "Relative Pronouns: Restrictive and Non-restrictive Clauses."