What difference can three or four letters make? When they form pronouns, these short words can have a big impact. Pronouns are words used in place of other nouns. They reduce repetition, which improves the clarity, pace, and flow of a sentence or paragraph. Without pronouns, sentences would be longer and messier and communication would become more difficult. In a world without pronouns, reading and speaking would be painfully boring. To see the difference pronouns can make, consider these two sentences.
A sentence without pronouns:
The lawyer spent the weekend writing the lawyer’s brief so the lawyer would have enough time to proofread the brief on Monday.
The same sentence with pronouns:
The lawyer spent the weekend writing her brief so she would have enough time to proofread it on Monday.
Though pronouns can improve communication, common pronoun mistakes can change the meaning of your writing. This article will help you understand how pronouns work so you can deliver your message more clearly.
Connecting Nouns and Their Replacements
Since pronouns replace nouns, rules about noun replacement are crucial for using pronouns correctly. Ignoring this connection will create misunderstanding.
The noun being replaced is called an antecedent. Since antecedent is an unfamiliar word, for this article, we’ll call the antecedent the “original noun” and the pronoun the “replacement noun” or pronoun. In the example above, lawyer is the original noun and she is the replacement noun. The original noun is usually toward the beginning of the sentence and the pronoun follows later. (Learn more about the exception below.)
The original noun and the replacement noun must match in three ways: in number, person, and gender. In grammar books, the three-way match between the original noun and its replacement is called agreement.
- Number: Singular or Plural. If the original noun is singular, like lawyer above, then use a singular pronoun like she. If the original noun is plural, like lawyers, then use a plural pronoun like they.
- Person: First, Second, or Third. Use the first person (I or we) if the original noun references the speaker. Use second person (you) if the original noun is the person or thing spoken to. Use third person (he, she, it, which, that, they) if the original noun is the person or thing spoken about (someone not in the conversation). In the example above, the sentence is about the lawyer, which is third person.
- Gender: Masculine, Feminine, or Neutral. If you know the gender of the original noun, then choose a pronoun that matches. In the example above, only the writer knows whether the lawyer is masculine or feminine, but since the author used she, we can assume the lawyer is a woman.
Because pronouns are substitutes, all pronouns take their meaning from the original noun they’re replacing, so the reader needs to know how they’re connected. An unclear pronoun reference will make your writing confusing and vague.
Confusion Arising from Disconnected Pronouns
The versatility that makes pronouns so useful in writing can also cause confusion. When readers struggle to understand pronoun references, the confusion stems from three possible sources:
- Ambiguous connection between original noun and pronoun. When a pronoun could refer to one or more original nouns in a sentence, it’s ambiguous.
Example: The truck went over the bridge just before it fell into the ravine.
The Problem: Does it refer to the truck or the bridge? You’ll have to rewrite your sentence to avoid this problem. Here are some solutions:
If the truck fell into the ravine: The truck went over the overpass just before falling into the ravine. (Remove the pronoun so the verb has to match the subject.)
If the bridge fell into the ravine: The truck went over the bridge, which fell into the ravine soon after. (Use a comma and which as a relative pronoun that must refer to the noun before it.)
- Remote reference between the original noun and the pronoun. Remote referencing occurs when your pronoun is so far away from its original noun that the relationship is unclear.
Example: The Socratic method, in this view, would teach students through questions and answers rather than lectures, which shows…
The Problem: What does which refer to? A good way to use the word which more clearly is to put a synonym for the original noun before it:
Example Solution: The Socratic method, in this view, would teach students through questions and answers rather than lectures, a teaching style which shows…
- Vague reference to the original noun. If there is more than one noun in your sentence, and the second sentence includes a pronoun but neither original noun, the sentence is ambiguous.
Example: The gift receipt for the sweater is attached. I hope you find it useful.
The Problem: What’s useful—the sweater or receipt? Here, it would be better to repeat the original noun than to replace it with a pronoun (it).
To get it right, make sure your pronoun clearly relates to one, unmistakable noun that came before the pronoun. When in doubt, try naming the person, place, or thing in your sentence, then replace it with a pronoun and see if the sentence still makes sense.
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 Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2018, Ivy was 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.