Language

La Trobe University

Language

Achieve@Uni
La Trobe University

Language

Achieve@Uni
La Trobe University

Language

Achieve@Uni

Pronouns

What is a pronoun?

In English, pronouns are used in place of nouns, once the noun (the referent) is known.  We can only make sense of the pronoun if we know to whom or to what the pronoun refers.

In the following sentence, we understand that the He refers to Sir Walter Elliot.

 

Sir Walter Elliot (referent) was a vain man. He (pronoun) constantly looked at himself in the mirror.

Types of  pronouns

Pronouns come in different forms depending on person (I, you, he/she/it), gender (female, male, neuter) and number (singular/plural). They can also be divided into five broad categories:

  1. subject/object pronouns
  2. possessive determiners and pronouns
  3. reflexive pronouns
  4. demonstrative determiners and demonstrative pronouns
  5. reciprocal pronouns.

Common pronoun errors

Most of the errors that occur when speakers or writers use pronouns fall into two categories:

  1. misuse of subject or object pronouns
  2. unclear pronoun use (ambiguity)


 

1. Subject or object pronoun? 

Writers and speakers are sometimes confused about whether a pronoun is the subject or object of an utterance or sentence. This is not surprising since common usage does not always conform to formal grammatical rules and also changes over time. For example, in speech, when the reply to a question is a pronoun, the object form often replaces the subject form of the pronoun. In this situation it is the me that is most frequently used:

 'Who received the letter?' previously the response would have been: 'It was I', more recently it is: 'It was me'.

'Is that the girl from your uni?' previously the response would have been: 'That is she', more recently it is: 'That is her' or 'That's her'.

But sometimes the object (me) is correct:

  • This concerns only me / This concerns only you and me,
  • The article was written by me/ The article was written by Nancy and me.
  • Between you and me.

 

RULES:

1. Always use the object form of the pronoun where it follows a preposition (words such as around, at, between, by, from, on, to, under, with):

NO - The participants handed the surveys back to her and I.

YES - The participants handed the surveys back to her and me.

 

2. Always use the subject form when the pronoun precedes the verb:

NO - You and me will share the photocopies.

YES - You and I will share the photocopies.

Pronoun activity

Before starting this activity you may want to remind yourself of the subject/object pronoun forms.

Select the correct formal pronoun for each of the sentences below and determine whether it is a subject or object.

1. ___ went on the fieldtrip.
2. She took ___ on the fieldtrip.
3. The article was written by ______.
4. The article was written by ______ .
5. Katherine and _______ conducted the research.
6. _____________ have been colleagues for many years.
7. The experiment helped ________ to understand the concept.
8. The prize was for ______ and me.
9. Between you and _________, there is much difference.
10. My colleague and _______ submitted the paper.
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2. Unclear pronoun use (ambiguity) 

A reader can only make sense of a pronoun if the link to the referent is clear: we need to know to whom or to what the pronoun refers:

  • If the link is clear, the writer has used the pronoun well;
  • if the link is unclear, the writer has created ambiguity or even confusion and made the reader’s job difficult.
  • Avoiding ambiguity in using pronouns is the writer’s aim.

There are four main ways in which ambiguity occurs:

a) In the following sentence a demonstrative pronoun is used (this, these, that, those), but it is not clear to whom or to what the pronoun refers:

The researchers collected the data on temperature, moisture and evaporation over four years using an innovative procedure. This affected the outcome of the study.

Problem:  to what word does “this” refer – the data or the innovative procedure?
Solution: Use ‘this’ with a noun or noun phrase.
 Eg, This procedure affected the outcome of the study.   

 

b) In the following example, pronouns are used repeatedly, and the noun to which they refer becomes further and further away from the pronoun. The structure is repetitive:

Victorian Aboriginal leader, Alf Bamblett, helped shape many of the state's most important indigenous services. He was known as "Uncle Alf" and he was a lifelong community advocate who was instrumental in setting up the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. He was a key member of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated and helped start the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association. He worked there until his death. He influenced government policy and fought for justice as Victorian Commissioner on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission.  He was named Victorian Aboriginal of the Year by NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) in 1994 and he was inducted to the Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll in 2011.

(adapted from Toscano, N. (2015, March 16). Victorian Aboriginal Leader Alf Bamblett remembered as 'Uncle Alf'. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/victorian-aboriginal-leader-alf-bamblett-remembered-as-uncle-alf-20150316-1m0lak.html#ixzz3riI6NItS)

Problem: Too great a distance between noun and pronouns.
Solution: Remind the reader who the referent is after two pronominal references:

 

Victorian Aboriginal leader Alf Bamblett, helped shape many of the state's most important indigenous services. He was known as "Uncle Alf" and he was a lifelong community advocate who was instrumental in setting up the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. Bamblett was a key member of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated and helped start the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association. He worked there until his death. He influenced government policy and fought for justice as Victorian Commissioner on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission.  Bamblett was named Victorian Aboriginal of the Year by NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) in 1994 and hewas inducted to the Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll in 2011.

(adapted from Toscano, N. (2015, March 16). Victorian Aboriginal Leader Alf Bamblett remembered as 'Uncle Alf'. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/victorian-aboriginal-leader-alf-bamblett-remembered-as-uncle-alf-20150316-1m0lak.html#ixzz3riI6NItS)

 

c) In the following two sentences, pronouns are used but the nouns to which they refer are missing:

One recommendation is that money be allocated to improve resources. Another recommendation is that they improve the participation rate of children.

Problem: Who are ‘they’?

Solution: Replace the pronoun with a noun or noun phrase: eg. Another recommendation is that the council improves the participation rate of children.

In the 18th century, they expected women to be passive.

  Problem: Who are ‘they’?
  Solution: 
Replace the pronoun with a noun or nouphrase: egEighteenth century society expected women to be passive.

4. In the following examples, a pronoun is used in each sentence, but there are two nouns to which or to whom it could refer causing ambiguity:

            The tutor told his student that his paper was not ready.

Problem: Is it the tutor’s paper or the student’s paper
One Solution: The student was told that his paper was not ready by the tutor


            The army drove its tanks too close to the buildings and damaged them.

Problem: what was damaged the tanks or the buildings?
One Solution: The buildings were damaged because the army drove its tanks too close to them.  


            The senator informed the minister that he was materially damaged by the action.


Problem: Who was materially damaged – the senator or the minister?
One Solution: 
The senator, who had been materially damaged by the action, informed the minister.

 

RULE: To ensure that your use of pronouns is clear, place the referent before the pronoun and keep the two as close as possible to each other.  (If you are using a determiner that looks like a pronoun, this/these or that/those, place it directly before the noun or noun phrase (e.g., this new publication; these innovations).

For more about pronouns go to 10 Common Grammar Mistakes: Poor Cohesion

Pronoun ambiguity

In some of the sentences below, the link between the pronoun and its referent is clear, but in others, the link is ambiguous. Which sentences are clear and which are ambiguous?
(The clear sentences are taken from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain Vol 3, BBC, 2000 and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century, MacMillan London 1978)

1. The union workers were angry with their supervisors because of the size of their pay rise.
2. The union workers were angry about the size of their pay rise and this anger was directed at their supervisors.

3. In the year that the Westerners were bragging about the benefits brought by Britain to India, the Indian economy had become deeply depressed.

4. In the year that the Westerners were bragging about the benefits brought by Britain to India, it had become deeply depressed.

5. When educated urbanized Indians looked at what were supposed to be the economic benefits of the British modernizers, they saw things that seemed to be designed more for the interests of them.

6. When educated urbanized Indians looked at what were supposed to be the economic benefits of the British modernizers, they saw things that seemed to be designed more for the interests of the rulers than for those of the ruled.
7. The apparent absence of earthly cause gave this a supernatural and sinister quality.
8. The apparent absence of earthly cause gave this epidemic a supernatural and sinister quality.
9. The doctors’ primary effort was to keep the plague at bay, chiefly by burning a mixture of aromatic substances to purify the air.
10. The doctors used a mixture of aromatic substances to purify the air in their primary effort to keep the plague at bay, chiefly by burning it.
11. The doctors or France and England used remedies in the 14th century that ranged from the empiric and sensible to the magical, for patients noble and common, with little distinction made between them.
12. Doctors’ remedies in the 14th century ranged from the empiric and sensible to the magical, with little distinction made between the one and the other. These remedies were applied to noble and commoner alike.
13. Sewage disposal was not unprovided for in the 14th century, though they should have made it more adequate.
14. Sewage disposal was not unprovided for in the 14th century, though it was far from adequate.
15. Compounds of rare spices and powdered pearls or emeralds were prescribed to alleviate it.
16. Some abbeys and large castles had separate buildings to serve as latrines for the monks or garrison that disposed of them.
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1. Subject and object pronouns

 

Subject

Object

Singular

Plural

Singular

Plural

1st person

I

we

me

us

2nd person

you

you

you

you

3rd person

he/she/it {one}

they

her/him/it

them

 

Pronouns can function as the subject of a sentence – the person, thing or idea that is doing something. Pronouns can also function as objects in a sentence – that which is having something done to it.

  1. I gave the essay to you.
    Question: Who is doing the givingAnswer: (the subject)
    Question: What is being given and to whom? Answer: the essay (direct objectto you (indirect object)
  2. She doesn’t deserve it.
    Question: Who is doing the not deservingAnswer: She (the subject)
    Question: What doesn’t she deserve. Answer: it (direct object)
  3. They played against us and won.
    Question:
     Who is doing the playingAnswer: They (the subject)
    Question: Against whom did they play? Answer: us (prepositional object)

Subject/object pronoun activity

In English most subjects occur before the verb and most objects follow the verb (the exception occurs in sentences that use the passive voice.

Look at the paragraph below and hover your mouse over the pronouns to see whether they function as subjects or objects and why.

Captain Wentworth had no fortune. He had been lucky in his profession, but spending freely, what had come freely, had realised nothing. But, he was confident that he would soon be rich; full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship and that would lead to everything he wanted. He had always been lucky; he knew he should be so still. There was an engagement between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth but Anne was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing - indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it. Lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, advised her against it. But it was not merely a selfish caution under which she acted in putting an end to it. Had she not imagined herself consulting his good, even more than her own, she could hardly have given him up.

(adapted from Persuasion by Jane Austen)

2. Possessive determiners and pronouns

 

Possessive determiners before the noun

Possessive pronouns

Singular

Plural

Singular

Plural

1st person

my

our

mine

ours

2nd person

your

your

yours

yours

3rd person

His/her/its* {one’s}

their

hers/his/Ø

theirs

 * notice that there is no apostrophe in the pronoun its.

 

Pronouns can be used to indicate possession either as a determiner before the noun (or noun phrase) or as a pronoun.

My (Determiner) shoes are red.

Mine (Pronoun) are red.

Possessive pronoun activity

In the sentences below, select the correct pronoun from the drop down menu.

judgment was upheld in the appeals court.
was reversed.
paper was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal.
required many changes.
was an unfortunate life.
research uses both quantitative and qualitative methods.
interviews were transcribed and then analysed.
were not transcribed.
has taken longer than expected.
writing is clear, concise and cohesive.
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3. Reflexive Pronouns

 

Singular

Plural

1st person

myself

ourselves

2nd person

yourself

yourselves

3rd person

herself/himself*/itself {oneself}

themselves*

*notice that it is himself and not hisself, themselves and not theirselves

 

Reflexive pronouns are always used in the same sentence as the noun (or noun phrase) to which they refer.

  • The lecturer blamed herself for the confusion.
  • I try to imagine myself receiving my degree.
  • Dolphins protect themselves through a sophisticated social structure.
  • The participants in the study contradicted themselves.

Reflexive pronoun activity

Which of the following sentences use the reflexive pronouns correctly.

1. They practised the technique on themselves first.
2. I found myself wishing that I had started the project earlier.
3. This was helpful to themselves.
4. The participants wanted to trade with ourselves.
5. The older participants often talked to themselves.
6. Such a problem should have been apparent to yourselves.
7. You will have to make the corrections yourself.
8. She constantly repeats herself.
9. We had to rely on ourselves during the field trip.
10. My colleague and myself submitted the paper.
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4. Demonstrative determiners and demonstrative pronouns

 

 

Singular

Plural

Near

this

these

Far

that

those

 

Like the possessive determiners and pronouns, demonstratives can function as both a determiner, before a noun, and as a pronoun replacing the noun

 

DETERMINER

PRONOUN

This (Determiner) survey must be completed.

This (Pronoun) must be completed

These (Determiner) surveys must be completed.

These (Pronoun) must be completed.

That (Determiner) survey should be tested before use.

That (Pronoun) should be tested before use.

Those (Determiner) surveys should be tested before use.

Those (Pronoun) should be tested before use.

 

Both the demonstrative determiners and demonstrative pronouns also vary in relation to proximity (near or far) and number (singularone  or pluralmore than one ) in utterances and written texts.

These plural near lecture notes are easy to understand, but those plural far from the guest speaker are not.

This singular near student at the front asks relevant questions, but that singular far one at the back is asleep!

In order for a demonstrative to be used as a pronoun, the context has to be very clear.

  • The listener or reader must know what this, these, that or those refers to.
  • It is usually always better to use the determiner with a noun rather than just the determiner on its own as a pronoun.

The examples below illustrate the point.

NO - A study of 7,000 recovering alcoholics showed that 3% were under the age of 20 and 18% were between 21 and 30. Moreover, the study revealed that the average age of alcoholics seems to be falling. This worries health officials.

In the above example, the pronoun this is used on its own. The reader has to scroll back and remember all the information before the pronoun to make sense of the sentence.

YES - A study of 7,000 recovering alcoholics showed that 3% were under the age of 20 and 18% were between 21 and 30. Moreover, the study revealed that the average age of alcoholics seems to be falling. This trend worries health officials.

In the second example where the determiner + a noun, This trend, is used, the link is less ambiguous and the reader has an easier job.

Demonstrative pronoun Activity

(This activity is adapted from: Academic Writing for Graduate Students (2012) by John M. Swales & Christine B. Feak. University of Michigan Press and uses the NSW EPA report of 2014 as a source of text examples http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/resources/soe09/09716atmos.pdf )

Choose a noun from the dropdown menu to add to the demonstrative pronoun to lessen the ambiguity of the sentences and improve their flow.

1. In New South Wales, overall emissions from motor vehicles and commercial, industrial and domestic activities have remained relatively stable. Despite this photochemical smog concentrations continue to exceed national air quality standards on a number of days each year.

2. The AAQ NEPM sets a standard for PM10 of 50 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) (24 hour-average). This would not be exceeded on more than five days per year.

3. DECCW's air quality information system was upgraded in 2008 to make it more flexible and accessible. This , in conjunction with an improved data acquisition and telemetry system, has resulted in a number of significant changes in how air quality data is reported and presented. These include: a revised Air Quality Index calculation, hourly updates of the Air Quality Index, six air pollution categories instead of three, a new subscription service.
4. The NSW EPA has initiated a Woodsmoke Reduction program that targets woodheaters which are a significant source of benzo(α)pyrene and other air toxins. This aims at educating local government, and hence the community, about better management of wood smoke and will therefore address particle and air toxic emissions simultaneously.
5. NSW will continue to work with other governments to develop appropriate controls at a national level. For example, NSW is a member of a national working party, which is considering management options to reduce emissions from small engines. This was initiated by NSW and has been taken up at a national level.
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4. Reciprocal Pronouns

Two common phrases used to express personal reference are the reciprocal pronouns, each other and one another. Like reflexive pronouns, they are always used in the same sentence as the noun (or noun phrase) to which they refer. However a reciprocal pronoun always refers to a plural (or conjoined) subject.

  • Students should encourage and support one another in group projects.
  • The two politicians shared such animosity towards each other that they could not work constructively together in the committee.
  • Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin did not trust each other.
  • In many cases, both species benefit from the interaction with each other.
  • Come on people now; smile on your brother; everybody get together, try to love one another right now (lyrics from Get Together,a song written by Chet Powers) 

 

 

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