I’ve often said that the words most likely to get a writer in trouble are the simplest ones: it’s/its, their/there/they’re…you get the idea.
High on that list would be these four words: he, him, she, her.
Perhaps you’re surprised. Those are simple words that everyone uses all the time. What’s the problem?
Actually there are two problems. First, people tend to mix them up, using “him” when they should say “he” and vice versa. My students (sigh!) are fond of saying “John and her went to the library.” Teachers patiently explain that “she” is correct, which leads to more confusion when students start using “she” all the time: “The librarian helped John and she find some useful information.”
Here’s how to do those sentences:
She went to the library.
John and she went to the library.
The librarian helped her find some useful information.
The librarian helped John and her find some useful information.
(Click on the Pronouns Made Simple link on this website and scroll down to read about “The Thumb Rule” if you want more help with these pronouns.)
But there’s another problem, almost as common, with words like he, him, she, her: Confusion when there are two males or two females in a sentence.
Here’s an example from the New York Times Magazine, usually a paragon of good writing:
(Background: Children were reared in an absolutely-no-junk-food home. Daughter Jess used a trip to an emergency room to bargain for a forbidden meal.)
At the hospital, the deal was struck. Jess wouldn’t freak out as the doctor threaded the dozen stitches, and in return, my mother would grant one fast-food burger of her choosing.
Who did the choosing, Mom or Jess? That “her” could refer to either.
Three pieces of advice:
1. Be careful with words like he, him, she, her.
2. Learn the Thumb Rule. (It’s easy!)
3. Always, always ask a friend or family member to read over what you’ve written. If you were writing that story about Jess and her Whopper, of course you’d know that it was your sister who made the choice. She’s your sister, and you know the story well! Your eyes pass over that “her” so quickly that you might not realize it will confuse a reader who doesn’t know you and your family.