Category Archives: Pronouns

He or She?

I just checked my AOL inbox and found the latest email from there. I get Grammarly emails often, and they’re always fun to read. (I should mention, though, that I insist that what they’re talking about is usage, not grammar. But shouting at my computer screen doesn’t change anything, so I’ve stopped doing it.)

Today’s email features 10 Commandments of Grammar Lovers – mostly exhortations not to be obnoxious when you think someone has broken a grammar rule. 

Here’s what’s really interesting about today’s Commandments: Two of them contain pronoun agreement errors (and another pronoun agreement error showed up in another sentence.)

But maybe there weren’t any pronoun agreement errors. It depends on your point of view.

Here are the sentences I’m talking about:

4. Thou shalt not murder a learner’s passion for grammar by belittling them. (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “belittling him or her.”)

5. Thou shalt not steal another person’s confidence by inappropriately correcting their grammar. (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “correcting his or her grammar.”)

If someone brags about the way they corrected a shopkeeper’s grammatically incorrect sign with a Sharpie or humiliated a public speaker for their poor use of language, stand up to them—don’t side with them.  (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “stand up to him or her – don’t side with him or her.”)

Here’s the point I want to make: The rule that you have to use “he or she” with a singular pronoun is in flux. When a grammar website uses them and their with a singular noun – contrary to what English teachers (like me) have been teaching for centuries – that’s a sure sign that people are rejecting the rule invented by Lindley Murray in the 18th century.

One of my recent posts talked about the change we’re witnessing: Now I have evidence that I’m not the only one who’s noticing the change!

Editing ok


How Not to Teach Pronouns

On a website for writers, I just read an article that clears up some confusing points about punctuation:  Lame Duck Punctuation. I have a feeling I’m going to be cranky all day.

Two things bother me about the article. First, the title isn’t helpful. The writer’s point is that punctuation errors make you as ineffectual as a lame duck. Good point – but many people (I’m one) instantly associate “lame duck” with politics, not punctuation. Why confuse your readers right off the bat?

The second irritation is the way she explains pronouns like hers, yours, theirs, ours, its. She wants you to remember that they belong to a group called pronomial pronouns that don’t get apostrophes. Ever.

She’s right, of course. But sheesh – why make it sound so complicated? I have a Ph.D. in English, I’ve been using those pronouns correctly for longer than many of you have been alive, and I can’t remember ever seeing the word pronomial before.

Here’s a much simpler way to learn how to use these pronouns (and there’s a bonus – you’ll have a memory device in case you’re confused some day years from now about whether there’s an apostrophe in ours or a similar word):

Think about the word his. No apostrophe, right?

All those pronouns work the same way. No apostrophe.

That book is hers, not his.

The dog buried its bone.

Ours is the blue Subaru.

To learn more about possessive pronouns (to tell you the truth, I don’t much like the word “possessive” either!), click here.

lame duck


Whose Bible Will the President Use?

Seen on


Sigh. The apostrophe in Who’s is like a little i [Who is?]. So AOL’s question is really asking, “Who is Historic Bible Will Obama Use at Inauguration?

Doesn’t make sense. The word needed here is whose: “Whose Historic Bible Will Obama Use at Inauguration?

Possessive pronouns don’t have apostrophes. Guess what: You already knew that! You don’t put an apostrophe into his, do you? Of course not.

All those possessive (ownership) pronouns work the same way: his, hers, its, yours, hers, ours, theirs…and whose.

To learn more about pronouns, click here.


A Pronoun Problem: “That” is a Tricky Word

If someone asked me for a list of the most troublesome words in the language, I’d put “that” high on the list.

Don’t get me wrong. “That” is a wonderful word that I use all the time (notice the that there?). But that also causes more than its fair share of problems–something I was reminded of again in this morning’s newspaper.

In an article about the nation’s debt, a senior fellow from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center had some cautionary words for both parties–and a sentence that illustrates why that is a problematic word. 

What’s so interesting is that the speaker – Roberton Williams – used that correctly. Still, I would have rewritten the sentence to eliminate a pronoun problem I’ll explain in a moment.

Let’s take a look at Williams’ sentence. After warning the president that he needs to be more realistic about raising taxes “across the board on a broader group of people,” Williams had this message for Republicans:  “On the other side, the Republicans are going to have to realize that not increasing taxes requires the very, very large cuts in spending that disproportionately benefits low and middle-income households.”

My husband, who read the newspaper before I did, pointed out the sentence to me. “Shouldn’t it be benefit?” he asked.

Makes sense–but no. He (like me and everybody else who has ever taken a writing class) was taught that you ignore the prepositional phrase when you choose your verb. So the sentence would essentially read like this: “very large cuts that disproportionately benefit low and middle- income households.” You would skip over “in spending” because it’s a prepositional phrase.

But sophisticated sentences don’t always work that way. Sometimes the prepositional phrase (“in spending”) is connected to something important.

I instantly knew something was wrong. Nobody in this political climate is talking about cuts that would make life better for low and middle-income households. Well, there’s been some talk about cutting oil subsidies, but that ain’t gonna happen.

What’s really on the table is cutting spending that disproportionately benefits low and middle-income households.

To put it in another way: Are we talking about “cuts that benefit” or “spending that benefits”?

Good writers care less about grammatical correctness and more about clarity. Yes, Williams got it right. But I would have rewritten the sentence so that the meaning would be clear the first time you read it:

On the other side, the Republicans are going to have to realize that not increasing taxes will require very, very large cuts in spending and, as a result, disporportionally cut benefits for low and middle-income households.

I suppose you could use Williams’ sentence to argue for a return to sentence diagramming. Anyone diagramming that sentence would have immedately seen the difficulty–what’s the antecedent of benefit?–and fixed it.

But there’s an easier and better way that’s especially beneficial to people like me who don’t have time to diagram sentences and (frank admission here) don’t know how to do it. If a sentence seems complicated or confusing, rewrite it.



Pronoun Problem

Here’s a sentence with a pronoun problem that my husband and I found in the draft of a gardening column he was writing:

Mulch heavily and add to it annually.  INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

The it is an indefinite pronoun reference. It doesn’t refer to a specific thing earlier in the sentence.

This might seem puzzling: “It” clearly refers to mulch, and there’s the word m-u-l-c-h four words earlier in the sentence:

Mulch heavily and add to it annually.

Nice try, but wrong. Mulch in this sentence is a verb (action), not a thing.

Here’s how we corrected the sentence:

Apply mulch heavily, and add to it annually.  CORRECT


The Indefinite Pronoun Problem

I came across a troublesome sentence as I was reading Secrets and Wives, a book about polygamy by Sanjiv Bhattacharya. The author is discussing Sister Wives, a TLC reality show about Cody Brown and his polygamous family:

When the Utah authorities threatened to charge Brown with bigamy after the show aired, it merely encouraged the cable network to book them for a second season.  AWKWARD

A copyeditor should have fixed that sentence. The problem is it, an ordinary word that can cause immense problems.

Let’s reread the sentence up to it merely encouraged. Notice what your brain is doing while you’re reading:

When the Utah authorities threatened to charge Brown with bigamy after the show aired, it merely encouraged

Here’s what I was thinking: The Utah authorities encouraged….

Wait a minute! The Utah authorities weren’t encouraging the Browns to prosecute polygamy. And Utah authorities is plural. You can’t refer to them as it. What’s going on here?

Backtracking to the beginning of the sentence, I started over, more slowly. Aha! It in this sentence is a vague word that doesn’t refer to anything–as if you said “It’s raining.”

Bad writing. You shouldn’t have to read a sentence twice to figure it out. And here’s a more important principle: A sentence should state who did what. In this sentence about the Browns, The Learning Channel decided to renew the show for a second season. Say so!

Here’s a better version of the sentence (notice that I’m using one of my favorite tricks for fixing awkward sentences: Make it two sentences).

The Utah authorities threatened to charge Brown with bigamy after Sister Wives aired. Instead of backing away from the controversy, The Learning Channel responded by renewing the show for a second season.  BETTER

Grammarians have a name for the problem we’re discussing: indefinite pronoun reference. Here’s a simple way to avoid the problem: Always make sure that it refers to something specific that you’ve already named.

(To learn more about using “it” in a sentence, click here.)



Apostrophes with Possessive Pronouns?

OK, I was wrong. But I’m not the only one: Many other authorities on English grammar made the same mistake I did.

Here’s what happened. I’m the sponsor and resident grammar authority for a writing club. At today’s meeting, member Richard Ricketts asked me a provocative question: Do possessive pronouns ever have apostrophes?

My immediate answer was no. His doesn’t have an apostrophe, and neither do any of the other possessive pronouns: hers, yours, ours, theirs, whose, its (it’s with an apostrophe means it is).

He nodded – and then he asked me about one. Suppose you wrote a sentence like “One’s handkerchief should always be clean.” Apostrophe or not?

I gulped. We checked the dictionary. Sure enough, one is classified as a pronoun in that sentence (it can also be a noun and an adjective, depending on how it’s used). And yes, the possessive form gets an apostrophe: one’s.

Score one for Richard Ricketts. And deduct a point from anyone who thinks that learning complicated grammatical classifications makes writing easy. Richard’s question underscores what I’ve been saying for years: Learning all that theory just muddies the waters.

Today’s Quiz  ANSWER

The sentence is correct. You feel bad (not badly) when something happens that you regret. (“Feel badly” means your sense of touch isn’t working.)

A technical explanation is that “feel” is a linking verb that takes an adjective.

Here’s the correct sentence again:

I felt bad because I forgot Susan’s birthday. CORRECT


For I and My Gal: Avoiding Pronoun Errors

Yes, I’m exaggerating. But the pronoun errors I keep running into are almost as ridiculous as singing “For I and my gal” instead of “For me and my gal” in the famous song.

I just edited an article that referred to “dragging the chairs outside for he and Larry.” For he?

But I hear similar errors all the time, often from people with graduate degrees: “for she,” “to he,” “with she and he.”

Folks, it’s “for her,” “to him,” “with him and her.” Please.

And when the weather gets better, we’ll be “dragging the chairs outside for him and Larry.”

(For a review of pronoun rules, click here.)


Pronoun Case, Anyone?

Discouraging – that’s what it is. AOL (which certainly has enough extra money lying around to hire an editor) allowed this ad to go up on its website with a pronoun error.

Let’s find out what’s wrong, using the “Thumb Rule” (Rule 3 on Pronouns Made Simple).

The question is whether it’s “Champ and I” or “Champ and me.” These I/me questions crop up all the time. (Similar questions arise with he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them.)

Here’s how you do it: Make the sentence shorter so that you can hear which word is correct: I or me.

Here is a new photo of I.

Here is a new photo of me.

Which is right?

Here is a new photo of me.  CORRECT

So…use “me” when you make the sentence longer:

Here is a new photo of Champ and me. CORRECT



Indefinite Pronoun Reference

Here’s an obscure topic for you! Translated into everyday English, “indefinite pronoun reference” means a confusing pronoun (he, him, she, her, it, they, them, this, that, and similar words). Here’s an example:

Carl took his son to Home Depot to pick out a paint color for his room. INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

Whose room, Carl’s or his son’s? Because there are two males, that “his” is unclear, or indefinite. Here’s a more clear sentence:

Carl took his son John to Home Depot to pick out a paint color for John’s room.  BETTER

Professional writers are always on the lookout for vague pronoun use. It’s a habit that makes good writers stand out from the rest of the pack.

And I just did it incorrectly. Did you notice? If not, here’s a chance to make your writing a little sharper – and to make your own writing stand out.

The problem word is “it.” (I’ve often said that it’s the seemingly easy everyday words in our language that create the biggest problems for writers.)

I wrote “It’s a habit….” What exactly is the habit? Being on the lookout for vague pronoun use. But those exact words didn’t appear in the previous sentence.

Here’s a revision that eliminates the vague reference:

Professional writers are always on the lookout for vague pronoun use. The habit of using pronouns in a precise way makes good writers stand out from the rest of the pack. BETTER

That sentence might have struck you as a little too formal for everyday writing. I agree. In conversation and emails I don’t concern myself with indefinite pronoun references. If you’re writing something for work or for publication, though, it pays to check your pronouns and revise sentences when necessary. Your writing will be sharper, and that’s a good thing.

(Not really. Did you notice the indefinite pronoun reference? That is unclear. Here’s the revised sentence: Your writing will acquire greater precision, and that’s a good thing.)