Here at WritersDomain, we talk a lot about the importance of sharpening and simplifying our writing so that articles are clear and useful. One of the most common ways to simplify a sentence (or passage) is by using pronouns, and it’s something we do so often that we probably don’t even realize we’re doing it.
However, because we use tend to use pronouns without thinking, it’s easy to make mistakes. So let’s take a look at some of the most fundamental pronoun uses to get back on the right track.
What are they?
A pronoun (it, him, her, this, that, them, etc.) is a word that takes the place of a noun.
Pronouns help a sentence sound natural and eliminate unnecessary repetition. For example:
Mulder and Scully sat down in Mulder’s office and looked at the case file Mulder and Scully would work on that day.
Mulder and Scully sat down in his office and looked at the case file they would work on that day.
But pronouns can’t work alone.
The antecedent is whatever a pronoun refers to or takes the place of. It is often a single word but can also be a concept, idea, or clause. The antecedent can be explicit (stated) or implicit (implied); either way, it must be clear. Here’s an example of a pronoun with a clear antecedent:
Scully took her badge and gun out of her jacket and set them on the desk.
And here’s that example again without one:
Scully took them out of her jacket and set them on the desk.
As you can see, without a clear antecedent, pronouns are effectively useless because there’s no way to know what they mean.
Basic Pronoun Number Rules
Although pronouns are meant to simplify sentences, they can sometimes do the opposite. Pronouns have basic rules that need to be followed so they make sense. The main principle to remember is that the pronoun needs to agree in number with its antecedent. Let’s take a look at some examples.
It vs. Them
You can’t use the singular pronoun it to refer to a plural noun like pencils:
Mulder flicked seven pencils up into the ceiling, then stood on his desk to get it down again.
The word pencils is a plural noun and needs a plural pronoun. Plus, since the pronoun it is so close to the singular nouns desk and ceiling, this sentence almost sounds like Mulder is getting his desk down from the ceiling or getting the ceiling down from the ceiling, which is probably not what’s happening (I say probably because, let’s face it, this is the X-Files). The correct pronoun usage for this sentence would be:
Mulder flicked seven pencils up into the ceiling, then stood on his desk to get them down again.
These vs. Those
This singular/plural relationship extends to pronouns like these and those. The plural pronoun these works like the singular pronoun this and refers to things that are nearby in space, time, or thought.
“Scully, is this your gun? Are these your fingerprints?”
(The gun and fingerprints are nearby to the speaker, so there’s no confusion about which gun and fingerprints the speaker is referring to.)
The plural pronoun those works like the singular pronoun that and refers to things that are further away in space, time, or thought.
“No, that is my gun. Those are not my fingerprints.”
(Scully’s actual gun is farther away. Since the fingerprints are not hers, they are also further away in thought.)
Pronoun uses like the ones discussed here are a great way to check how conversational and reader-friendly your writing is. If the reader clearly understands what this, that, these, and those refer to, they’ll be able to process your writing quickly and easily.
A Closer Look at Antecedents
Earlier we said that the antecedent of a pronoun can be explicit (stated) or implicit (implied). Let’s take a closer look at what that means and how antecedents and pronouns work together.
An antecedent can be a single word, or it can be an idea, a phrase, or a clause.
Mulder took the folder from Scully and opened it.
(The it Mulder is opening is the folder.)
As Scully’s health took a turn for the worse, she took leave from work to deal with it.
(The it Scully is dealing with is her worsening health.)
The antecedent of a pronoun is usually in the same sentence as that pronoun, but it can be in the previous sentence as long as there’s no room for confusion.
A pronoun can only refer to one antecedent at a time
You can’t use them/they to refer to different people or groups in one sentence. For example:
Mulder and Scully met up with the Lone Gunmen; they brought their computers and they brought all their research.
Who brought the computers and who brought the research? Did the Lone Gunmen bring everything? Did Mulder and Scully have any research to contribute? Unclear antecedents raise too many questions. It would easy to say something like this instead:
Mulder and Scully met up with the Lone Gunmen; the agents brought all their research and the hackers brought computers.
These are examples of explicit pronouns, since the antecedent nouns are clearly stated.
Pro Tip: Notice that this version of the sentence utilizes parallel structure: since Mulder and Scully were mentioned first, they’re also referred to first in the second clause. Parallel structure helps eliminate confusion and increase the clarity and flow of the sentence.
Sometimes, the antecedent is missing (implicit!)
Missing antecedents usually happen when someone addresses someone else directly with the pronoun you:
If you want to stay truly safe, trust no one.
In sentences like this, it’s important to remember that only one pronoun can be used for any given antecedent. A sentence like the following, then, would be incorrect:
As an FBI agent, you might have a lot of secrets; their job depends on secrecy, though, so don’t spill the beans!
In this sentence, the pronoun you is used to refer to the listener or reader. Since this pronoun is already established, the pronoun their doesn’t match and shouldn’t be used. Their is trying to refer to FBI agents, but this sentence is about you, not agents in general. Here’s one way to clear up a sentence like that one:
As an FBI agent, you might have a lot of secrets; your job depends on secrecy, though, so don’t spill the beans!
If the antecedent of a pronoun is unclear, readers have no way of knowing what that pronoun refers to. When in doubt, more clarity is always better than less. Remember to use clear antecedents and keep an eye out for UFPs: unidentified flying pronouns!
As writers, one of our main goals is to make our writing as easy to understand as possible. Proper pronoun usage is one of the most natural ways to streamline and simplify what we’re trying to say.