Pronouns Made Simple

1.  Use its (no apostrophe) as a possessive word (similar to his):

Publix hopes to increase its profits this year.  CORRECT

The coat is missing one of its buttons. CORRECT

Remember that it’s (with an apostrophe) always means it is:

When the bell rings, it’s time for class. CORRECT

I’m going to buy Alice’s computer if it’s not too expensive. CORRECT

2.  Use the “thumb rule” when a name appears with a personal pronoun—I, me, she, her, he, him, we, us, they, them.

THE THUMB RULE:  Shorten the sentence so that you can hear the right pronoun. Here’s how to do it: Cover the name and the word “and” with your thumb.   Read the sentence, skipping over the words you covered up.  Use the pronoun that sounds correct.

Let Jane and (I, me) help you.
Let Jane and me help you. (cover up “Jane and”)
Let Jane and me help you. CORRECT

Yesterday Jane and (I, me) helped Greg.
Yesterday Jane and I helped Greg.  (cover up “Jane and”)
Yesterday Jane and I helped Greg.  CORRECT

3.  In comparisons, “finish the sentence” by adding an extra word:  Your ear will tell you which pronoun is correct.

Bill is older than (I, me).
Bill is older than I am. (“Finish the sentence” by adding am.)
Bill is older than I.   CORRECT

Cheryl works faster than (he, him).
Cheryl works faster than he does. (“Finish the sentence” by adding does.)
Cheryl works faster than he.  CORRECT

4.  [A rule that is disappearing!] Memorize the following list of “singular” words (words that mean one person or thing):    each every any one body

Any combination of these words will be singular.

Everyone is here for class.  SINGULAR (notice the “is”: The sentence is about one person)

Somebody should wash these windows.  SINGULAR

Any movie is fine with me.  SINGULAR (“movie” is singular – a good clue that “any” means “one”)

Use singular words with singular pronouns (his, her, its).

Everyone should have his or her assignments completed.  SINGULAR

Somebody needs to do his or her job better.  SINGULAR

Any student can have his or her library card updated today.  SINGULAR

The school opened its doors in 1957.  SINGULAR

Note: This clumsy rule was invented by Lindley Murray, an 18th century attorney who took it upon himself to make the English language more mathematical. Murray’s rule (you have to use his with each, every, any, one, and body) was modified in the mid-20th century when feminists asked for she and her to be added.)

Murray’s rule – and the addition of she and her – soon found its way into grammar textbooks. But the rule never caught on in everyday conversation. In recent years some writers have abandoned Murray’s rule and returned to using their as a singular pronoun – a common practice even in formal writing until Murray came along.

Before Lindley Murray:

Everyone brought their favorite dish to the church dinner.

After Lindley Murray:

Everyone brought his or her favorite dish to the church dinner.

What to do? Professional writers disagree. If you’re writing for a school assignment or an editor who rejects the singular their, you should stick to his or her. If you’re writing for yourself, you can make your own decision about using – or avoiding – this his or her practice.

You can download a free, printable handout about pronouns at this link:

3 thoughts on “Pronouns Made Simple

  1. Kelly Pomeroy

    I disagree with “Bill is older than I”. It’s not good colloquial English. If it doesn’t sound natural, it’s probably a poor choice. Do you think the following exchage sounds good?: “Take out the garbage.” “Who, I?” Come ON!

    The rule that brings sane results is to forget about Indo-European declensions and say simply that the only time the nominative form is used is when it’s the subject of an
    EXPRESSED verb. (And compound subjects – or objects – take the same form as singluar ones.)

    Drll this in, and it will also do away with such nonsense as “I’ll give it to whomever wants it”.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    I agree 100%! My version is always “Bill is older than I am.” It’s good colloquial English, and it works whether I’m talking to a friend or speaking in front of a group as a paid consultant who’s supposed to be modeling good English usage.
    I’d also like to add that the famous “C’est moi” in French uses an objective pronoun (“me”) rather than a subjective one with a copulative verb.

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