Let's start our look at pronouns with two common problems,Unclear Antecedents and Lack of Agreement in Number. Then we can go on to look at the types of pronouns. We'll also need to look at something called Case.
Pronouns are wiggly. The basic idea of how to use a pronoun is pretty simple, but in the midst of real sentences, pronouns create all sorts of interesting problems. My favorite problem is the one created when a pronoun seems to refer to the wrongantecedent. For example, there is the famous joke:
My father shot the elephant wearing his pajamas.
One can only wonder how the elephant got into a pair of pajamas to begin with. (This sentence not only has a problem with an ambiguous pronoun antecedent, but the present participle phrase, "wearing his pajamas," is misplaced.)
Pronouns, as you know, take the place of nouns, so that we don't have to keep repeating the noun. Usually a pronoun will refer to the noun that came before it. Sentences can become confusing when pronouns refer to nouns that are too far away, especially if there is another noun of the same number and gender that comes between the pronoun and its antecedent.
Here are some examples
1, Ruth smashed the ball over the left field fence and watched it sail into the stands.
(In this sentence, the pronoun "it" probably refers to the ball, but it could also refer to the word "fence" which is closer in the sentence.)
2. Ruth tossed the ball to Sally after she signaled the coach that she needed a time out.
(In this sentence it is hard to tell whether Ruth or Sally signaled the coach and whether Ruth or Sally needed a time out. Since Sally is the closest noun to "she" in the sentence, the most likely meaning is that Sally signaled the coach and that Sally needed a time out.)
3. The reporter wrote that as he was talking to the senator, he fell asleep in his chair.
(Who fell asleep, the senator or the reporter? Sometimes the number or gender of the pronoun can help the writer. For example: The reporter wrote that as he was talking to the senator, she fell asleep in her chair. In this sentence, "she" clearly refers to the senator.)
Want to try anexercise that tests the clarity of antecedents?
Lack of Agreement in Number and Gender
Another common problem with pronouns occurs when the pronoun doesn't "agree" with its antecedent. Pronouns have to be the same number and gender as its antecedent. That is, if the antecedent is singular and masculine, the pronoun must be singular and masculine. For example, in the sentence "Michael Jordan slammed the ball through the hoop and raised his fist in triumph." Jordan is a singular noun and Jordan is a male, and the pronoun "his" is singular and masculine. That part is pretty simple.
The only real problem occurs when we don't know the gender of the noun or when the noun could be masculine or feminine. Take for example the sentence, "A new senator is usually concerned with which committee he will join." A senator can obviously be a man or a woman, so which pronoun should we use? For a long time, writer's used "he" when they didn't know which gender to use. The theory was that "he" could stand for men and women. The Penguin Dictionary of American Usage and Style still recommends this approach, though it does recognize some other solutions. Writer's Inc. isn't much help on the question.
Students often try to solve this problem by using a plural pronoun, for example: A new senator is usually concerned with which committee they will join. That solution, of course, drives English teachers crazy because it violates one of the fundamental rules of pronoun usage, that pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents. Another solution is to use the phrase "he or she," for example, : A new senator is usually concerned with which committee he or she will join. In this sentence, "he or she" works fine. In other sentences, the phrase may make the sentence awkward. Of course, there is no grammatical reason to say "he or she" rather than "she or he." The phrase "he or she" is more common
Using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent is not currently grammatically acceptable. I'm going to recommend that you use either "he or she" or rewrite the sentence to eliminate the problem. For example: New senators are usually concerned with which committee they will join.
Want to try anexercise that tests agreement in number and gender?
Nominative Case, Objective Case, and Possessive Case
"Case" refers to how a word is used in a sentence. Pronouns can be used as subjects of sentences or as objects (such as the object of a preposition and the direct object of the verb). Pronouns used as subjects are in the nominative case and pronouns used as objects are in the objective case. Of course, pronouns can also be possessive. Possessive pronouns are in the possessive case.
Fortunately, the "case" of a pronoun only creates a couple of significant problems for writers. Sometimes when a pronoun is joined with another word, it can be hard to figure out whether the pronoun is being a subject or an object. For example, "Jane gave Sally and (I, me) an invitation to the party." In this situation (as you probably know), simply leave out the other word and choose the pronoun that sounds right: Jane gave me an invitation.
The other problem that case can cause is with forms of the verb "be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) and other linking verbs. Since these verbs are linking verbs, you'll need to follow them with pronouns in the nominative case. That's why you say "It is I" rather than "It is me," and why you say "This is he" rather than "This is him." Actually probably you probably don't say any of those things very often, but if you did, and if you wanted to be grammatically correct, you would use the nominative case. However, as Lovinger argues in The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, "It is I" and "It is he" are stilted and not appropriate for ordinary speech or informal writing.
There is a big group of pronouns that can cause special headaches, the indefinite pronouns. A pronoun like "he" or "she" or "him" or "her" refers to a particular noun that usually comes a little ways before. Indefinite pronouns can refer to unknown nouns. Writer's Inc. provides agood list of such pronouns. Here are a few: all, another, any, both, each, everyone, few, many, most, much, several, some.
One of the problems with indefinite pronouns is figuring out whether they are singular or plural. For some indefinite pronouns, the "number" of the pronoun (singular or plural) is clear. "One," for example, is an indefinite pronoun that is clearly singular. For example, in the sentence, "One suspects that grammatical questions are of more interest to English teachers than to the common person," the indefinite pronoun "one" takes a singular verb. Similarly, "Several," is clearly plural. But what about an indefinite pronoun like "more" or "much" or "many"?
I have a little test to help you decide whether an indefinite pronoun is singular or plural. The test is a little gross, but that makes it memorable. Stick the pronoun into the sentences _________ of the puppies are missing AND ____________ of the puppy is missing. If the indefinite pronoun works in the first sentence only, it is plural; if it works in the second sentence only, it is singular. If it works in both sentences, it can be singular or plural depending on the context. For example, "Many of the puppies are missing," makes sense, but "Many of the puppies are missing," doesn't make sense. "Many" therefore, is a plural indefinite pronoun. "Some of the puppies are missing" makes sense, and "Some of the puppy is missing" also makes sense. "Some" is an indefinite pronoun that can be singular or plural depending on the context.
Pronoun Glossary and Lists
Antecendent--The antecedent of a pronoun is the word the pronoun refers to. For example, in the sentence, "John stole all of my money, and then he wrecked my car," the antecedent for the pronoun "he" is the noun "John." In the sentence, "Ruth smashed the ball over the left field wall, and then she trotted around the bases in triumph," the antecedent for the pronoun "she" is the noun "Ruth." Pronouns almost always refer back to nouns, rather than other parts of speech. A pronoun must "agree" with its antecedent in number and gender.
Indefinite Pronouns listed in Writer's Inc.
all both everything nobody several
another each few none some
any each one many no one somebody
anybody either most nothing someone
anyone everybody much one something
anything everyone neither other such