Intro: You have already learned that pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. But you have to be careful when you use them, and always make sure to use them clearly. Because a pronoun refers back to a noun or takes the place of that noun, you have to use the correct pronoun so that your reader clearly understands which noun your pronoun is referring to. Follow theses three guidelines: pronouns must:
1. Agree in number
If the pronoun takes the place of a singular noun, you have to use a singular pronoun. Never use they, when referring to a single person. Replace they with he or she. Many people find the construction “his or her” wordy, so if it is possible to use a plural noun so that you can use “they” as your pronoun, it may be wise to do so.
If a student is late for school, they must check in at the office. (incorrect)
If a student is late for school, he or she must check in at the office. (correct)
If students are late for school, they must check in at the office. (correct)
Remember: the words everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody, and someone are singular and take singular pronouns.
Everybody ought to do his or her best. (NOT: their best)
Neither of the girls brought her umbrella. (NOT: their umbrellas)
2. Agree in person
If you are writing in the “first person” ( I), don’t confuse your reader by switching to the “second person” ( you) or “third person” (he, she, they, it, etc.). Similarly, if you are using the “second person,” don’t switch to “first” or “third.”
When one comes to class, he or she should have the homework ready. (correct)
When a person comes to class, you should have the homework ready. (incorrect)
3. Refer clearly to a specific noun.
Because a pronoun replaces a noun, you must make clear which noun your pronoun is replacing. The noun the pronoun replaces is called the antecedent.
Although the motorcycle hit the tree, it was not damaged.
(Is “it” the motorcycle or the tree?)
I don’t think they should show violence on TV. (Who are “they”?)
If you put this sheet in your notebook, you can refer to it. (What does “it” refer to, the sheet or your notebook?)
To try a sample paragraph, click on the PDF below: