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Pronoun Errors

Pronoun errors can be subdivided into the following categories:

 

Shifts in Person

The most common pronoun problem in SSU student papers is inappropriate shift in person:

If there were no more questions, then we had time to work on our homework before class ended. The grades that you received were what you had earned for the class.

According to Reviewing Basic Grammar (a textbook previously used in English 0095), "Person refers to the differences among the person speaking (first person), the person spoken to (second person), and the person or thing being spoken about" (Yarber and Yarber 152). In the example above, the writer initially uses first person (we), and then suddenly starts using second person (you) instead. Yarber and Yarber explain that such shifts are often distracting: "When you make a mistaken shift in person, you have shown that you have lost your way in your own sentence--that you have forgotten what you were writing about" (152).

Because the sentences in the example above are from a paper in which a student is telling about her own experiences, she should have kept the entire text in first person:

If there were no more questions, then we had time to work on our homework before class ended. The grades that we received were what we had earned for the class.

Chapter 40 (pages 380-81) of The Longman Concise Companion provides advice for avoiding inappropriate shifts in person.

Shifts in Number

The second most common pronoun problem is inappropriate shift in number:

Most students experience the teaching methods of many different teachers throughout his/her high school career.

The basic rule for number agreement is straightforward: Use a singular pronoun to refer to a singular noun or to a singular pronoun; use a plural pronoun to refer to a plural noun or to a plural pronoun. (Note that two singular pronouns joined by a slash or by or are treated as one singular pronoun, while two singular pronouns joined by and are considered plural.) Thus, the example sentence above should have been written:

Most students experience the teaching methods of many different teachers throughout their high school careers.

Sometimes, the most practical way to fix an agreement problem is to change the antecedent (the noun), not the pronoun. Consider the following passages:

A student can learn to depend on their own merit for success. They can also do almost anything they want without interference.

One may add their friends' screen names to their IM lists.

Changing the antecedent (student, one)in each passage is the simplest way to correct the grammar:

Students can learn to depend on their own merit for success. They can do almost anything they want without interference .

Users may add their friends' screen names to their IM lists.

The grammar problems could also be fixed by changing the pronouns, but this solution is more complicated and the corrected sentences do not flow as smoothly as those in the first rewrites:

A student can learn to depend on his or her own merit for success. He or she can do almost anything he or she wants without interference.

One may add one's friends' screen names to one's IM list.

The repeated use of his or her and he or she can be awkward, and the repeated use of one can sound pretentious. Therefore, some writers intentionally use their and they as singular problems, despite the fact that many of their readers may object to the grammar error. There are also some writers who use "generic he" to refer to a single person: "A student can learn to depend on his own merit for success." In fact, decades ago, generic he was considered the norm. In 1900, grammarian Thomas W. Harvey advised students: "The English language being destitute of a pronoun of the third person singular and common gender, usage has sanctioned the employment of the masculine forms he, his, him, for that purpose; as, in speaking of scholars generally, we say, 'A thorough scholar studies his lesson carefully'" (A New English Grammar for Schools, p. 92).

Although some established writers use singular they and generic he, contemporary students must understand that many readers are offended by such choices. Therefore, do not use singular they or generic he in college writing. See pages 418-19 of The Longman Concise Companion or the National Council of Teachers of English website for more information.

Vague Pronoun Reference

The third most common pronoun error is vague pronoun reference. The standard definition of pronoun is "a word that takes the place of a noun or another pronoun" (Yarber and Yarber, Reviewing Basic Grammar, p. 318). Vague pronoun reference is a problem that confuses readers when they encounter pronouns but cannot figure out what the antecedents are. In the following example, it does not refer to any noun previously mentioned in the text:

Seven is about a psycho serial killer who commits crimes against people who have committed one of the seven deadly sins. He creates a puzzle out of it for the police to solve.

When we are speaking, we often use pronouns like it and they without antecedents:

  • It's cold today.

  • It may snow later.

  • They put such violent programs on during prime time these days.

  • They certainly expect you to eat a lot of lettuce.

In writing, however, these vague references may confuse readers. See Chapter 38 (pages 368-73) of The Longman Concise Companion for advice on how to avoid vague pronoun reference.

Wrong Pronouns

Some pronoun errors do not fall neatly into one of the three categories above. Some students use the wrong form of a pronoun or the wrong pronoun.

Wrong Pronoun Forms . SSU students almost never use the wrong form of a pronoun when that pronoun stands alone, but they frequently become confused when the pronoun is part of a compound subject or object:

Her and my father have been married for a little more than 15 years. [The student who wrote this sentence never used a possessive pronoun as the singular subject of a sentence, as in: Her has been married for a little more than 15 years.]

Me or my children would never set foot in his house again. [The student who wrote this sentence never used an objective pronoun as the singular subject of a sentence, as in: Me would never set foot in his house again.]

When proofreading papers, pay close attention to compound subjects and object. Chapter 33 (pages 331-34) of The Longman Concise Companion offers suggestions for proofreading text with these compound elements.

Wrong Choice of Pronouns. The pronouns most likely to be used incorrectly are that, which, and who.

Phil goes through his transformation, that makes him a totally different different person.

She takes him to a doctor, which confirms that the blackouts are real.

I'm not one of those twisted people that is crazy about blood and gore movies.

In informal writing or in conversation, that, which, and who can sometimes be interchangeable. In college writing, however, you should be careful using these pronouns:

Phil goes through his transformation, which makes him a totally different person.

The Longman Concise Companion explains:

Although the distinction between that and which is weakening in many contexts, formal writing often requires you to know the difference. Use that in a clause that is essential to the meaning of a sentence (restrictive modifier); use which with a clause that does not provide essential meaning (nonrestrictive modifier). (489)

Furthermore, in formal writing, use who—not that or which—to refer to people:

She takes him to a doctor, who confirms that the blackouts are real.

I'm not one of those twisted people who is crazy about blood and gore movies.

Additional discussion about essential and non-essential information is available under the section on comma errors.

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