Pronoun Error Examples
Multiple Pronouns and What Case to Use
Many people become confused about which case to use when more than one pronoun is involved (example: she and I, him and me). Many students, believing that nominative pronouns sound more “correct,” are reluctant to use objective pronouns in such situations. Try splitting the sentence into two parts to determine the correct case for the pronoun.
- She/Her and I/me went shopping.
- She went shopping. I went shopping.
- Her went shopping. Me went shopping.
- She and I went shopping. (She and I are the subjects of the verb went; therefore they must be in the nominative case.)
- Miguel went to the movies with he/him and I/me.
- Miguel went with he. Miguel went with I.
- Miguel went with him. Miguel went with me.
- Miguel went to the movies with him and me. (Him and me are the objects of the preposition with; therefore they must be in the objective case.)
“We” and “Us” as Appositives
The personal pronouns we and us are sometimes used as appositives, which restate or explain a noun in the sentence.
- We sophomores will host the school banquet on Saturday.
- Sometimes the weather is kind to us farmers.
In informal, spoken English, the objective us is commonly used as the appositive, but in formal writing, we and us must still be in the proper case when they are used as appositives.
- Use: We girls are going skiing next weekend.
- Not: Us girls are going skiing next weekend. (Girls is the subject of the sentence, so its appositive must be in the nominative case.)
Notice that unlike noun appositives, pronoun appositives are not set off by commas.
Pronouns as Complements (or “It is I!”)
When a personal pronoun acts as a subject complement (following a form of the verb “to be”), it should be in the nominative case. However, in spoken English and in some informal writing, the objective form of the pronoun is used instead.
- Who is there? It’s me!
- That is them over there.
In formal writing, be sure to use the nominative case.
- Who is there? It is I!
- That is they over there.
Agreement of Pronouns with Antecedents
The noun that a pronoun replaces is called the antecedent of the pronoun. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number, person, and gender.
In the following examples, the antecedents are underlined and the pronouns are italicized.
- I loaned Janet my textbook so that she could copy the homework exercises from it.
The proper noun Janet is the antecedent of the pronoun she. The noun textbook is the antecedent of the pronoun it.
For compound antecedents joined by and, the pronoun should be plural.
- I left my backpack and my laptop on the table, but now they are not there.
For compound antecedents joined by or or nor, the pronoun should be singular.
- Michelle or Amanda will drive her car.
If the antecedents joined by or or nor are different in number or gender, the pronoun should
agree with the nearest antecedent.
- Before we can proceed, Ms. Ralph or Mr. Kong must give his approval.
- The Mitchell twins or Jessica will bring her CD player.
However, sentences of this kind are awkward sounding and potentially unclear. They should be rephrased whenever possible.
- Before we can proceed, we must get approval from Ms. Ralph or Mr. Kong.
- Either Jessica will bring her CD player, or the Mitchell twins will bring theirs.
If a pronoun and its antecedent become separated by other nouns, it may not be possible to correctly identify the antecedent.
- Steve gave Diego a ride to the game so that he could talk to him.
What are the antecedents of he and him? Either pronoun could refer to either man. To make the meaning clear, rewrite the sentence.
- Steve gave Diego a ride to the game because Steve wanted to talk to him.
- OR: Steve gave Diego a ride to the game so the two of them could talk.
In the first sentence, the unclear pronoun he has been replaced by Steve, so him can only refer to Diego. In the second sentence, them can only refer to the pair of men.
Pronoun Error Examples
Restrictive “That” versus Nonrestrictive “Which”
An old grammar rule says that the relative pronoun that can introduce only restrictive relative clauses and the relative pronoun which can introduce only nonrestrictive relative clauses. A restrictive clause introduces information essential to the sentence and is not set off by commas.
A nonrestrictive clause introduces supplementary information and is always set off by
commas. For example:
- The watch that belonged to my grandfather needs repair. (restrictive)
- The watch, which was made in Germany, used to chime on the hour. (nonrestrictive)
While this rule might be useful as a memory aid, it does not necessarily reflect current practice. In reality, there is nothing grammatically incorrect about using which to introduce a restrictive clause:
- The watch which belonged to my grandfather needs repair. (restrictive)
The choice between which or that for restrictive clauses is strictly a matter of style, and many writers and speakers would find no difference between the two. However, some teachers and editors still prefer to use which for nonrestrictive clauses only, so students should be aware of this rule.
One rule that is grammatically sound: that cannot introduce a nonrestrictive clause. In any case, who, whom, whoever, or whomever are appropriate choices when the clause refers to a person.
“Who” versus “Whom”
In spoken English and in some informal writing, whom is rarely used, but in formal writing, you must determine whether to use who (nominative) or whom (objective) when introducing a relative clause.
To help you recognize whether the pronoun is being used as a subject or an object within the relative clause, try rephrasing the clause as a sentence and substituting a different pronoun for who/whom.
- I met the artist [who/whom painted this picture].
- Rephrased: The artist painted this picture. OR: She painted this picture.
- Correct: I met the artist [who painted this picture]. (In this relative clause, the artist/she is the subject of the verb painted; therefore, the nominative case is required.)
- He is the kind of person [who/whom I admire].
- Rephrased: I admire him.
- Correct: He is the kind of person whom I admire. (In this relative clause, him is the object of the verb admire; therefore, the objective case is required.)
Remember that the key question is how the pronoun functions with the clause. Do not be confused by other words that appear before the pronoun.
- Give the package to [whoever is working at the front desk].
Because the pronoun follows the preposition to, some students might reason that the pronoun is the object of the preposition, and therefore use whomever. But because whoever is the subject of the clause, it must be in nominative case. (Whoever is not the object of the preposition in the this case; the entire clause is the object of the preposition.) Compare this sentence:
- Give the package to [whomever you find at the front desk].
In this relative clause, whomever is the direct object of the verb find, so it must be in objective case. (Rephrased, it would be “you find him at the front desk.”)
“This Kind,” “Those Sorts”
The common English expressions that kind, those sorts, this sort, and so on, often cause problems related to agreement. First, the adjective and any nouns associated with it must all be singular or all be plural.
- Incorrect: Those kind of things . . .
- Correct: This kind of thing . . .
- Correct: Those kinds of things . . .
- Incorrect: Those sort of thing . . .
- Correct: That sort of thing . . .
- Correct: Those sorts of things . . .
Second, the verb following the expression must agree in number.
- Singular: That kind of thing does not interest me.
- Plural: Those kinds of things do not interest me.
Possessive Pronouns and Apostrophes
Because an apostrophe and s added to the end of a noun indicates possession, many writers try to add apostrophes to possessive pronouns.
- Incorrect: your’s, their’s, it’s, her’s
- Correct: yours, theirs, its, hers
- Incorrect: That coat is her’s.
- Correct: That coat is hers.
- Incorrect: The box was missing it’s lid.
- Correct: The box was missing its lid.
Writers also confuse possessives with contractions, which use apostrophes to indicate omitted letters. This confusion is compounded by the fact that the adjectives and contractions are pronounced exactly alike.
- Their = belonging to them
- They’re = contraction of “they are”
- Your = belonging to you
- You’re = contraction of “you are”
- Its = belonging to it
- It’s = contraction of “it is”
- Whose = belonging to who
- Who’s = contraction of “who is”
If you are in doubt as to which form to use in writing, try expanding the contraction to see if it still makes sense.
- That tree has lost it’s/its leaves.
- Incorrect: That tree has lost it is leaves.
- Correct: That tree has lost its leaves. (“the leaves belonging to it”—its is the possessive form)
Sexist Language and Indefinite Pronouns
Indefinite pronouns are often used to make general observations or broadly inclusive statements. As mentioned previously, most indefinite pronouns are considered singular. In the past, it was often standard practice to use a singular male pronoun to follow indefinite pronouns. This “generic he” was supposed to refer to males and females generally.
- Everyone wants to do his best.
However, concerns over sexist language have created a desire for more gender-inclusive constructions.
- Everyone wants to do his or her best.
- or Everyone wants to do their best.
Although the second sentence violates the general rule requiring agreement with antecedents, many writers and speakers prefer to use forms of they because these forms are not gender specific. This is a common practice, but it is still criticized by grammatical purists. To avoid the problem, rewrite the sentence so that a “generic he” would not be necessary.
Usually, the simplest solution is to replace the singular indefinite pronoun with a plural alternative (underlined in the following example).
- All people want to do their best.
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