In this lesson, you’ll learn how to avoid common pronoun errors.
We use pronouns to avoid repetition. Let’s review pronoun use and then study some principles that will help us avoid common pronoun errors.
Pronouns replace nouns with words like she, they, your, their, it, and others. See the following sentences:
No pronoun: Employees can view the employees’ paychecks online.
Pronoun: Employees can view their paychecks online.
In the first sentence, no pronoun is used. In the second sentence, the pronoun their is used to replace the word employees’. Let’s look at two more sentences:
No pronoun: My computer broke, so tech support fixed my computer.
Pronoun: My computer broke, so tech support fixedit.
Notice that the second sentence uses the pronoun it to refer to computer. The pronoun makes the sentence more concise. As you can see, pronouns can be useful. Now, let’s study some guidelines about how to use pronouns correctly.
Sometimes writers want to express an idea about people in general. For example, the writer may want to share advice or state a fact. The formal way to do that is to use the pronoun one, which means “a person.” See the example below:
If one wants to achieve a dream, one must make a goal.
The example sentence above is correct for formal situations. However, sometimes using the pronoun one can be too formal. In informal situations, it may be better to use the pronoun you. See the example below:
If you want to achieve a dream, you must make a goal.
However, it can be rude to use the pronoun you too often in sentence, because it can seem like the writer is accusing or pointing a finger. Look at the following sentences:
Accusing: When you understand this system, you can increase your production.
Better: When people understand this system, they can increase their production.
Notice that the “better” sentence had a different way to make a general statement. The writer used the noun people and the pronoun they, and it did not seem as rude as the “accusing” sentence.
Remember that deciding which pronoun to use depends on the audience and the formality of the situation.
When using a pronoun, be sure it agrees in number with the noun it refers to. Let’s look at the following sentence:
Incorrect: I hate it when a customer doesn’t know what they want.
In the sentence above, the noun customer is singular. However, the pronoun they, used later in the sentence, is plural. Let’s look at the correction of that sentence:
Correct: I hate it when customers don’t know what they want.
In the correct sentence, the writer changed the noun to be plural, which made it easier to express the idea and ensure that the noun and pronoun would agree in number.
Do not refer to one gender when writing about people in general. This mistake happens a lot when a writer refers to a particular activity or profession. See the sentence below:
Incorrect: A good doctor will always listen to his patients.
The pronoun in the sentence above is incorrect because it expresses the idea that all doctors are male, which is not true. Let’s look at a correction:
Correct: Good doctors will always listen to their patients.
The writer of the correct sentence made the noun and pronouns plural so that they refer to all people, not just one gender.
Be sure the pronoun you use correctly matches the noun it replaces. Use the pronoun who when referring to people, that when referring to things, when when referring to time, and where when referring to places. See the following example:
Incorrect: I know a woman that can type 80 words per minute.
Correct: I know a woman who can type 80 words per minute.
In the incorrect sentence, the writer used the pronoun that to replace the noun woman. Since woman is a person, the correct pronoun in this sentence is who.
Remember that a pronoun replaces a noun, so be sure it is clear which noun the pronoun replaces. Look at the following passage:
Unclear: All of the patients arrived late for their appointments, and I missed my lunch hour. This made me upset for the rest of the day.
In the sentence above, it is not clear what this refers to. Was the employee upset because the patients arrived late or because he missed lunch? Was he upset because of both situations? It is not clear. See the correction below:
Better: All of the patients arrived late for their appointments, and I missed my lunch hour. Missing lunch made me upset for the rest of the day.
In the correction, the writer makes it clear which situation made him feel upset. In this passage, it was best to not use a pronoun.