Pronouns replace nouns, take their place, substitute for them—a function for which those who write in English are indebted to the Indo-European languages spoken during prehistoric times. As this family of languages evolved and developed into several languages, English among them, pronouns appeared. They have come to us dragging a series of rules about usage, rules that also have evolved over the centuries.
These rules center on reference (providing an unmistakable antecedent), number (making certain that a pronoun and the noun it stands for are both singular or both plural), and case (whether the pronoun functions as subject, object, or possessive). We're most likely to make or overlook pronoun errors in the fervor of drafting, revising, or cutting and pasting; proofreading carefully can help you catch them. Applying the appropriate rules will help you correct them.
This first set of pronoun rules focuses on specificity, on avoiding ambiguity by ensuring that the noun to which a pronoun refers is definite, identifiable, precise. In the first sentence of the second paragraph above, for example, we clarify the initial "these" with the word "rules" to avoid ambiguity. Had we written "These center on reference," the reader couldn't easily tell if "these" referred to "rules" or "centuries."
RESOLVE AMBIGUITY OF THE ANTECEDENT
Each pronoun has an antecedent, a noun to which it refers. If the relationship between the pronoun and antecedent is not obvious, a reader or listener is likely to misunderstand or become confused.
Here's what to watch for—and when you find ambiguity, the solution is to rewrite the sentence to make the antecedent identifiable or to omit the pronoun.
Pronouns cannot refer to more than one antecedent.
- "The director assured the participant that she would remain until the study ended." Who is the "she," the director or the participant? Remove one antecedent and you remove the ambiguity: "The director promised that she would remain until the study ended" or "The director assured the participant that she could remain until the study ended" both work.
Each of the pronouns "it," "that," "this," and "which" also needs to refer to a specific antecedent, not to entire sentences or ideas.
- "The candidates balked at being requested to provide access to social media accounts. This was unacceptable." What is unacceptable—the balking or the request? Rewriting the second sentence as "They found the request unacceptable" provides the needed clarity.
Pronouns must refer to a noun that is stated, not merely implied.
- "After filing her complaint, the CEO enumerated them during the meeting." To what noun does "them" refer? It's probably meant to refer to the points or items mentioned in the complaint, but because these points or items are implied rather than stated in the sentence, "them" has no antecedent. Revising the sentence to "After filing her complaint, the CEO enumerated each of its points during the meeting" corrects the error.
"They" cannot refer to something that hasn't been mentioned.
- "They say the winter will be harsh." Who is "they"? The Farmer's Almanac? The meteorologist on a local news program? A panel at a scientific conference? Give the source.
"You" should not be used to mean "anyone in general." In fact, use "you" only to address the reader or listener directly.
- "In Switzerland, you aren't allowed to take a shower after 10 PM if you live in an apartment." Who is "you"? Recasting the sentence as "Apartment-dwellers in Switzerland aren't allowed to shower after 10 PM" resolves the conflict.
Similarly, the pronoun "it" requires a precise antecedent.
- "In the article it noted that the cost of generics may increase." Who is the "it"? Rewriting the sentence as "The article noted that the cost of generics may increase" produces clarity and precision.
The reward for following these rules is not just grammatical correctness. The increased clarity they provide is the writer's aim and the writer's reward—and the readers" due.