Pronouns usually refer to other words, called their
antecedents because they (should) come before
the pronoun. A pronoun's
antecedent may be either a noun or another
pronoun, but in either case, it must be
clear what the antecedent is. Consider this example:
- Micheline told Ruth that she would take Jerry to the
It is not clear whether the pronoun "she" in this
sentence refers to Ruth or Micheline. Unless
pronouns refer unmistakably to distinct, close, and
single antecedents, the reader will never be sure who's
going to the square dance with whom.
A pronoun should have only one possible antecedent
If there is more than one possible antecedent for a
personal pronoun in a sentence, make sure
that the pronoun refers only to one of them:
- [WRONG] Jerry found a gun in the knickers which he
"Which he wore" could modify "knickers" or
- [WRONG] Jerry called Steve twelve times while he was in
The pronoun "he" could refer either to
"Jerry" or to "Steve."
A pronoun should not refer to an implied idea
Make sure that the pronoun refers to a specific rather
than to an implicit antecedent: When you leave the
antecedent implied instead of stating it explicitly, the
reader has to try to guess your sentence's meaning:
- [WRONG] John put a bullet in his gun and shot
The pronoun "it" can refer either to the
noun "gun" or to the implied object of
the verb "shot".
- [WRONG] If I told you had a beautiful body would you hold it
The pronoun "it" can refer to the
noun "body" or to the entire statement.
- [WRONG] The craftspersons' union reached an agreement on Ruth's
penalty, but it took time.
The pronoun "it" can refer to the noun
"union" or to the implied process of decision making.
A pronoun should not refer to adjectives or possessive
You should not use adjectives, or nouns
or pronouns in the possessive case, as
antecedents. Although they may imply a
noun, reference to them will be ambiguous:
- In Ruth's apology she told Jerry she'd loved
him for years.
In this case, the pronoun "she" seems to refer to
the noun phrase "Ruth's apology,", though it was
probably meant to refer to possessive noun
- Jerry wore those blasted green knickers; it was his
In this example, the pronoun "it" seems to refer
to the noun "knickers," though it was probably meant to refer to
the adjective "green."
A pronoun should not refer to a title
When you start your paper, do not write as if the title itself were
part of the body of the paper. Often, the title will appear on a
separate page, and your opening will be confusing. Imagine, for
example, a paper entitled "How to Sew Green Knickers": you should
not begin the first paragraph with a
- This is not as easy as it looks.
The writer probably wanted the pronoun "this" to
refer to the idea of sewing knickers, but since the idea is not in the
body of the paper itself, the reference will not make sense.
Use "it," "they," and "you" carefully
In conversation people often use expressions such as "It says in
this book that ..." and "In my home town they say that
...". These constructions are useful for information
conversation because they allow you to present ideas casually, without
supporting evidence; for academic writing, however, these
constructions are either too imprecise or too wordy:
- [WRONG] In Chapter four of my autobiography it says
that I was born out of wedlock.
In Chapter four, what says that the speaker was born
out of wedlock?
- [WRONG] In the restaurant they gave me someone else's
Who gave the speaker someone else's linguini?
It would be better to rewrite these two sentences as
- [RIGHT] Chapter four of my autobiography states that I
was born out of wedlock.
- [RIGHT] In the restaurant, the server gave me someone
In these revised sentences, there is no doubt about who is doing what.
The same basic rule applies to the pronoun "you."
In informal conversation and in instructional writing (like
HyperGrammar), English speakers often use the
pronoun to mean something like "a hypothetical
person" or "people in general"; academic writing, however,
needs to be more precise, and you should use "you" only when you
want to address the reader directly (as I am doing here). Consider
- [WRONG] In the fourteenth century, you had to struggle to
In this case, "you" obviously does not refer to the reader,
since the reader was not alive during the seventeenth century. It
would be better to rewrite the sentence so that it expresses your idea
more precisely; for example
- [RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, people had to struggle to
Or even better yet,
- [RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, English peasant farmers had
to struggle to survive.
Use "it" consistently within a sentence
There are three common uses of the pronoun "it":
- As an idiom
- "It is snowing";
- To postpone the subject
- "It is untrue that a rhinoceros can run faster than
my tights"; and
- As a personal pronoun
- "I wanted a rhinoceros for my birthday, but did not get
You may use all of these in academic writing, but to avoid
awkwardness, you should not use more than one within a single
- [WRONG] When it is my birthday, I hope to receive a
rhinoceros, and I will walk it often.
It would be better to eliminate the first (idiomatic)
- On my birthday, I hope to receive a rhinoceros, and I will walk
Use "who," "which," and "that" carefully
Historically, writers, editors, and publishers have had difficulty
establishing a clear guidelines for using the relative pronouns "who," "which," and "that," in formal
writing, but over the last fifty years or so they have come a loose
standard. According to this standard, the pronoun
"who" usually refers to people, but may also refer to animals
that have names:
- My mother, who gave me the rhino, must love me very
much. My rhino, whom I call Spike, wanders at will through
The pronoun "which" refers to animals and
- The rhino, which is a much maligned and misunderstood animal, is
really quite affectionate. Its horn is a matt of hair which
is sort of stuck to its snout.
Finally, the pronoun "that" refers to animals and
things and occasionally to persons when they are collective or
- The rhino that hid behind the television was missing
- Rhinos that like to swim cause both plumbing and
enamelling problems for their owners.
- The answer that everyone missed was