Exception to the Rule: When Pronouns Come First
If your sentence starts with a dependent clause, the pronoun can be used first. This is the main exception to the rule that replacement nouns (pronouns) must come before the original noun in English. If you need a grammar refresher, a dependent clause is a separate part of a sentence that doesn’t make sense on its own. Even advanced writers make mistakes writing sentences like these.
Here’s a regular, short sentence without a dependent clause:
The family walked to the market.
Here’s a dependent clause added to that sentence:
After they finished breakfast, the family walked to the market.
The pronoun they comes before its original noun (the family). When the pronoun comes first, it must match the subject of the main sentence. Here, they must match the family, because the family is the subject. Many writers get confused about which pronoun to use in sentences like these.
Can you spot the mistake in the dependent clause below?
As soon as she left for work, the dogs chewed up all of Laura’s throw pillows.
The subject of the sentence is the dogs, but the dependent clause is talking about Laura (she). When readers see pronouns before their original nouns, they expect that original noun to be the first thing after the dependent clause.
Here are some ways to correct the sentence above:
As soon as Laura left for work, the dogs chewed up all of her throw pillows.
As soon as they realized Laura was gone, the dogs chewed up all of her throw pillows.
Using Pronouns to Avoid Repetition and Improve Flow
Repetitive wording will bore your reader and make your writing feel clunky. To improve the flow of your sentences, try replacing one noun you’ve used several times. In the first example in this article, we replaced lawyer with she. But the results are even better if you replace a longer noun phrase like environmental engineers. Using pronouns, you can cut 170 characters down to 128 and you’ve made the passage far more readable.
A passage without pronouns:
The environmental engineers are designing a sustainable green office building. The environmental engineers are making good progress. The environmental engineers should finish the project on time.
The same passage with pronouns:
The environmental engineers are designing a sustainable green office building. They are making good progress. They should finish the project on time.
If you’re not sure where to start, look for two or three sentences in a row that start the same way. Leave the first sentence as-is, then replace the original noun with a pronoun in the next sentence or two. This is a safe way to build your comfort with pronouns because you haven’t changed topics from sentence to sentence and you probably haven’t introduced any new nouns, either.
Even if you’re an inexperienced writer, it’s never too early to work on your flow. Learning the rules for pronoun use will help you communicate clearly and concisely. When you’re ready to improve your writing skills even further, try WordRake. In one click, WordRake analyzes your writing and suggests edits for clarity and brevity, right in Microsoft Word or Outlook. It’s the instant editor that lives in your computer! Try WordRake free for 7 days.
About the Authors
Ivy B. Grey is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.
Danielle Cosimo is a Language Usage Analyst for WordRake. Before joining the team, she was a translator and editor for non-native English speakers applying to degree programs in the United States and the UK. Danielle is formally trained in linguistics and has a certificate in computer programming. She is fluent in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. She applies her interdisciplinary knowledge to create WordRake’s editing algorithms.