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Grammar Camp: Common expression errors Part 2: Pronoun perplexities

Part 2 of 3 of the Grammar Camp series focused on common expression errors
Published April 28, 2020 by Julia Lane

Pronouns?!

You've probably heard the word. Chances are, you've even been asked to state your pronouns at an event. But, what are they? 

Pronouns are words that can take the place of nouns. There are six main types of pronouns: 

The following are some specific contexts that can create "pronoun perplexities" in sentences: 

Pronoun agreement 

Compound subjects and joint antecedents 

When you have a compound subject or joint antecedent, it can be difficult to figure out whether you need a singular or a plural pronoun. Here is a trick to help you make the right choice: 

If there is an "and" joining your subjects (ex. "Dex and Asya are coming over later") you need a plural noun ("They are going to bring guac.") 

If you have the word "each," "every," "or," or "nor" between your subjects, you need a singular pronoun instead. 

Here are some examples: 

  • Each student needs to bring their own lunch. 
Note: this is an example of a singular "they" pronoun. This sentence could be re-written as "Each student needs to bring his/her own lunch." However, that version relies on gendered pronouns and is therefore not inclusive of all students. The singluar "they" is the more inclusive and therefore more appropriate choice in such cases. Another option to re-write the sentence would be "Each student needs to bring his/her/their own lunch." Of course, there are other pronouns out there (looking at you, ze and xe!), so if you want to list them all, you'll need to look up a list. Also, your sentence might get unwieldy with all those slashes ;) 
  • Either dad or grandpa will pick you up after school. Keep an eye out for the car so you don't miss him

Indefinite antecedents 

Many indefinite antecedents (ex. "each," "either," "everyone," everybody") agree with plural pronouns, which can be confusing because words like "everyone" and "everybody" refer to collectives. However, when you are referring to "everyone," you are referring to a singular instance of a collective. Here are some examples: 

  • Each of the five cousins has her own car. --> Although there are five cousins, the word "each" means I am referring to the individuals (singular). 
  • Everyone needs to arrive by 9am with his/her/their bags packed. 

There are some indefinite antecedents (ex. several, few, both, many) that use plural pronouns. Here are some examples:

  • Many critics praised the restaurant in their reviews. 
  • Few of the judges were able to get past the stumble when it came time to submit their scores. 
  • Several of the children returned home from the field trip with mud caked on their boots. 

When indefinite antecedents are followed in a sentence by a prepositional phrase, you determine whether the pronoun should be singular or plural based on whether the object of the preposition is countable or uncountable. Here are two examples: 

  • Some of the flour spilled out of its bag. --> the prepositional phrase here is "of the flour" ("of" is the preposition). The indefinite antecedent is "some." Flour is uncountable, and so you use the singular pronoun
  • Some of the chocolate chips spilled out of their bag. --> this sentence has the same indefinite antecedent and uses a similar prepositional phrase, but the object ("chocolate chips") is countable, and so you use a plural pronoun

For more on pronouns with indefinite antecedents, check out this resource

Collective nouns 

Sentences with collective nouns can also be confusing. When referring to a collective (such as with the indefinite antecedents "everyone" and "everybody" above), you use a singular pronoun. Here is an example:

  • The committee announced its decision.

The exception is when you are referring to actions taken by individual members of the collective. For example:  

  • The committee started chatting among themselves

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More Perplexing Pronouns, and examples of how to use them correctly 

CASE (these examples show correct uses):

Subject (and following to be, as, than)

Object of verb or preposition

Indirect object

Herbert and I will go.

It is he who must go, not you.

Herbert is taller than she is.

Herbert is as good a cook as I am.

Who is this handsome devil?

She asked Herbert and me to go.

Filbert put the bag between us.

Whom should we invite?

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.

Quick—hand her that light-sabre!

Please email me the form no later than Friday.

 

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REFLEXIVES (these examples show correct uses): 

Direct or indirect object

Object of preposition

Intensifier

Herbert treated himself to chocolate.

They gave themselves a trip to Las Vegas.

Be kind to yourself.

My child can think for herself.

The Grinch himself carved the roast beast.

myself have no interest in bungie-jumping.

 

TIP:  Avoid “hypercorrect” pronouns

X If you have any comments on this initiative, kindly email them to myself no later than Friday. 

The object form is correct: "me."

X The Strands may invite Herbert and I over to their new house to dinner. 

The object form is correct: "me." Besides, we'd never say "they may invite I to dinner."

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REFERENCE (these examples show problems with pronoun reference):

Ambiguous

Vague

Missing Antecedent

Indefinite

We all know people who set such unrealistic goals for success and happiness that sooner or later, they fail.

(is it the people or the goals that fail?)

 

When Herbert told Mike that he had just won a Mercedes, he was delighted.

(is it Herbert or Mike who won/is delighted?)

The beds are wrinkled, and the shower needs cleaning. This is unacceptable.

(what is unacceptable? Pro tip: always use a noun after the pronoun "this." Ex: "This mess is unacceptable.") 

 

Gandalf does crossword puzzles and plays guitar when he isn’t battling Sauron, but Frodo finds this irritating.

After the professor’s lecture, she agreed to take five questions from the audience.

(the reader assumes that it is the professor who is taking questions, but that isn't actually stated. You could revise in a number of ways including: 

"After the professor gave her lecture, she agreed..." 

See how the first sentence refers to the professor's lecture whereas the re-write refers to the professor?) 

 

Whenever a witches’ coven is called, they are all expected to attend.

It states in Grammar for Goddesses that “grammar” is closely related to “glamour.”

(This pronoun isn't needed at all! Here is a re-write: 

Grammar for Goddesses states that "grammar" is closely related to "glamour.") 

 

In more remote parts of Canada, they don’t have high-speed internet coverage.

Solution: When you are revising your work, try to identify the pronouns and think about how they might be interfering with meaning or clarity. Revisions may involve restructuring the sentence: e.g. "Sooner or later, people will fail to achieve their goals for success and happiness if those goals are unrealistic" or "...will fail to achieve unrealistic goals for..."

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Thanks to Dr. Amanda Goldrick-Jones, retired SLC Writing Services Coordinator, for generating much of this content! :)