Ah, September. Can you smell the notebook paper and pencil shavings, the hint of chalk dust in the air?
Do you hear the crackle of a brand new vinyl three-ring binder? Can you feel the heft of a textbook in your hands as you excitedly open to chapter one?
And, of course, the inevitable paper cuts as you attempt to fold that unwieldy manila textbook cover to just the right size!
Ah, the memories . . . so poignant, so richly satisfying, so--
Ruthy, are you nodding off again? I would hate to have to send you to the principal’s office--
Oh, I forgot. You are the principal.
Well, class, shall we begin? Today’s lecture is on the subject of pronouns.
Pronouns, simply put, are words that stand in for nouns. If we did not have pronouns, conversation would become quite redundant. For example:
On Mary’s way to Mary’s car, Mary discovered a mouse and asked Mary’s husband to kill the mouse.Let’s see how substituting appropriate pronouns can make this sentence read more naturally:
On Mary’s way to her car, she discovered a mouse and asked her husband to kill it.The word the pronoun refers back to is called the antecedent. “Mary,” in this case, is the antecedent of “her” and “she”; “mouse” is the antecedent of “it.”
Where writers often run into trouble is by using pronouns without clearly indicating their antecedents, or omitting an antecedent that is essential to the meaning of the sentence or paragraph.
Can you identify the problems with these sentences?
Cara set food down for the cat, but the dog ate it.Grammar requires that the antecedent and the word it refers to must agree in gender, in number, and in person.
Tina told Glynna she would have to buy the book.
Pam thought it was fun.
Gender is (usually) a straightforward concept. Males take male pronouns (he, him, his); females take female pronouns (she, her, hers); gender-neutral nouns take it and its.
Number refers to whether a noun is singular or plural. If the antecedent is singular, a singular pronoun is required, etc., etc.
Person indicates to whom the pronoun refers. First person refers to the speaker (I, me, we, us, my, mine). Second person refers to the person spoken to (you, your, yours). Third person refers to someone or something being spoken about (he, she, it, him, her, they, them, their, theirs).
All perfectly clear? You in the back row, is your hand raised for a question? Oh, Myra, it’s you. You’ve been trying to ignore me for so long that I almost didn’t recognize you.
“Yes, GQ, it’s me. Sorry, I mean, it is I. Welcome back. I wonder if you’d address the issue of the generic their, they thing. You know, when the gender of the singular antecedent is ambiguous.”Of course, and congratulations on your excellent vocabulary. In casual conversation, it’s more natural and generally acceptable (unfortunately) to use the plural they or their, even when the antecedent is singular. For example:
Each member of Sandra’s pickle ball team kept their own scorecard.Member is singular, but we don’t know if these people are male, female, or a few of each. Now, I must state for the record that I have no idea what pickle ball is or how it is played, much less how the game is scored. However, I do know a thing or two about pronouns and therefore would urge you, when confronted with an occasion to misuse they or their with a singular antecedent, to consider the grammatically correct alternative:
Each member of Sandra’s pickle ball team kept his or her own scorecard.Or you could simply rephrase the sentence so as to remove the temptation entirely:
All the members of Sandra’s pickle ball team kept their own scorecard.
And now I shall turn my attention to another touchy issue involving pronouns--in this case, the possessive form. But first, does everyone know what a gerund is? Simply stated, a gerund is the -ing form of a verb when the word is used as a noun.
Writing is hard work. (subject of the sentence)Now, when you must refer to the activity as it is performed by someone, the possessive noun or pronoun should correctly come into play.
A well-developed story requires brainstorming. (direct object of the sentence)
Glynna’s brainstorming took longer than she anticipated, resulting in her writing the book much more quickly.For a thorough explanation of gerunds and possessives, please see this excellent post by another grammar aficionado, the incomparable Grammar Girl.
“I’m grateful for your finding me those research sources, Missy,” Cara said.
Perhaps I should draw today’s lecture to a close before I completely overwhelm your poor, tired brains. However, I assure you, we will most certainly resume this discussion in a future class, for we have barely scratched the surface of proper pronoun use.
Let’s conclude with a short quiz. Please choose the correct pronoun in each of the following sentences:
Audra and (she, her) are collaborating on a new romantic series.
Don’t forget to bring the chocolates for Debby and (I, me).
(We, Us) girls plan to meet Tina for lunch.
Either Julie or Janet will read an excerpt from (her, their) latest release.
Each of Ruthy’s book covers has (their, its) own unique charm.