PRONOUNS What is a pronoun? Rather than memorizing a definition, let us see if we can “figure out” what pronouns are ourselves.
Consider the following story:
Peter was a naughty rabbit. Peter went to the farm. Peter ate some lettuce and carrots. The farmer was angry at Peter. The farmer tried to catch Peter. Peter escaped from the farm. During his escape, Peter lost his jacket. We recognize this as a children’s story, partly because the names are repeated over and over. We might debate the value of this repetition, even in children’s stories, but there it is.
Now read this story:
Ginger and Joel loved each other very much. Ginger and Joel did not want an expensive wedding, so Ginger and Joel decided to elope. Ginger and Joel had always wanted to see Hawaii, so Ginger and Joel decided to fly to Hawaii to get married. Ginger and Joel did not tell anyone that Ginger and Joel were going. Ginger’s mother and Joel’s mother were very sad. This story sounds like a children’s story. But it isn’t, is it? What makes it sound like a children’s story? Mostly, the repetition of the names makes the story seem childish. What would make it “grow up”? Pronouns. Pronouns to take the place of those names being repeated and repeated.
Does this sound better?
Ginger and Joel loved each other very much. They did not want an expensive wedding, so they decided to elope. Ginger and Joel had always wanted to see Hawaii, so they decided to fly there to get married. They did not tell anyone that they were going. Both their mothers were very sad.
Now the story has pronouns. Can you pick them out? “They” is one and “their” is another. They make the paragraph a little less boring, don’t they?
So now we know what pronouns are: pronouns are words which take the place of nouns (antecedents…for more information on antecedents check the handout/link called “Antecedents”).
Is there more? Yes, just a bit…
First, let us get to know those pronouns. They are words you have used all your life, but you probably have never thought of them at all, let alone thought of them as “pronouns.” It may also surprise you to know how many there are!!
I, you, he, she, you (plural), they, my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their, mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs, me, you , him her, it , us, you, them, myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves, who, which, that, whose, what, which, this, these, that those, each other, one another, all, anyone, each Yes, that is a lot, isn’t it? Maybe it would help to see that they can be sorted or grouped into different kinds of pronouns.
Personal Pronouns: These pronouns refer to people or things:
I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they (these are subjective--that is, they can be subjects)
My, your, his, her, its, our, your, their (these are possessive)
Mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs (these too)
Me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them (objective –that is, they can be used as objects)
Demonstrative Pronouns These pronouns point out the antecedent in a strong, directional kind of way. If it helps, think of them as a pointed finger!. Please see the handouts on/links to antecedent and ambiguity.
this, these, that, those
These pronouns point out the individual parts of a plural antecedent.
each other, one another
Example: We (plural antecedent) love each other (refers back to “We”)
Indefinite Pronouns These pronouns refer to non-specific persons or things.
all, anyone, each and others
Reflexive Pronouns These pronouns are used to intensify and/or reflect back to the antecedent.
myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves
Interrogative Pronouns These words are pronouns which introduce a question.
who, whom, whose, what, which
Relative Pronouns These pronouns introduce clauses. Please see the handout/link “Run-ons, Comma-splices, Fragments….’ to get an understanding of clauses.
who, which, that (yes, “who” and “which” are on the last list too; the fact is, they can do two jobs (although not at the same time) and can be either kind of pronoun!)
So, now that we know what pronouns are and what they do, we’re finished, right? Not quite. Even though we use these pronouns all our life, we still have problems with them. Let’s take a look…
Problems with Pronouns 1. Choosing the Right One
It should be easy and quick to pick the correct pronoun when we write, and for some of us, it is. However, many people struggle and feel more embarrassed by “getting the right one” than they feel about any other grammar problem. That could be because of something that begins when we are quite small.
My youngest always used to say, “Me and Gyllie are going down to Daisy’s store.” And, everytime she said that, I would correct her, “Gyllie and I are going down to Daisy’s.” I am positive that she thought there was something very special about the word “I.” In fact, I believe that this scene is repeated every day in households and schools across the English-speaking world.
The problem is that children grow up with the conviction that “I” is good and “me” is bad, a conviction that reveals itself at university when students want to impress their professors and to do so, carefully construct sentences such as “Between you and I, the war was unnecessary.” “I” just “sounds” right. Unfortunately, it is not. The lowly “me” is really correct in this sentence.
A further and related problem exists when students pick the pronoun they use by how it “sounds” in the sentence. In fact, most students make writing choices based on how the writing “sounds.” It is true that if people have been avid readers all their life, they will indeed be able to trust their “inner ear”; we could say that as they read, so will they write. The truth is, however, that few people today are great readers. Consequently, the “sound” most students depend on to guide them in their writing choices is usually the sound of the everyday speech they hear around them. Unfortunately, most of us are a little careless in our everyday speech, so, for the most part, we do not create the best models to use as writing guides.
So, then, if “how it sounds” isn’t the best guide, what else can we rely on?
The answer is that it will help us if we can get a sense of what pronouns do and where they fit in sentences. It also helps to remember the basic order of an average English sentence: s-v-o-p-t (subject, verb, object, place and time).
If we look back at the chart on pronouns on pages 2 & 3, we see, for example, that personal pronouns are divided into subjective (some call these nominative), objective, and possessive.
Since subjective pronouns are used as subjects, we need to think about where subjects usually are and what they actually do.
Example: He came over this morning.
When we look at this sentence, we immediately see the verb phrase “came over,” and we see that the pronoun fits before it, as subjects usually do, and (just as a check because as you know subjects aren’t always in this place) we can also ask “Who came over? to find the subject, which, is, as we see, “he.”
Now we know that we have chosen the right pronoun because it is a subject pronoun working as a subject in the sentence.
To review an old example:
Gyllie and I are going to Daisy’s.
Again, we have the most common sentence order with the verb “are going” and the answer to “Who is going?” being “Gyllie and I.”
Now we know that “I” is correct, not because it is somehow “better’ than “me,” but because it is a subject pronoun working as a subject in the sentence (true, even if it is “sharing” subject status with “Gyllie”).
Little trick: In case you get confused about compound subjects (like Gyllie and I) when you are trying to decide on your pronoun, cover up the other part of the subject (For example: Gyllie and I are going to Daisy’s). You will then be able to concentrate on the position of the needed pronoun—ie. whether it is subject or object position.
Ok, you have that part now. What about the “Between you and I…”? Whoops, I mean “Between you and me….” Well, the same pattern explains the “me” choice…
Next on the pronoun chart, we see that the next group of pronouns after subjective are objective. We can guess now that they are used in the object place in the sentence. The only complication here is that there are a few different kinds of objects.
The first and easiest object to pick out is object of the verb. John threw the ball. What did John throw? The ball. Ball is the object, in a normal object position, after the verb, and therefore when we use a pronoun “it” to substitute for “ball,” “it” is an object pronoun, an object of the verb “threw.” John threw it. Here is another example of a pronoun which is an object of a verb:
The princess kissed the frog.
The princess kissed him (or “it,” as you choose) In this example, “frog” is the object of “kissed” (who did the princess kiss?) and so is its substitute “him.”
Now, what about “Between you and me, …………..” Do you see a verb there? I don’t. But I do see a preposition; the preposition is “between.”
Pronouns are often in the position of being objects of prepositions.
Example: Mark gave flowers to his girlfriend.
In this sentence, the word “flowers” is the object of the verb “gave,” but “girlfriend’ is the object of the preposition “to.” This means that when we substitute “her” for “his gilfriend, “her” is the object of the preposition “to.”
Mark gave flowers to her.
Another object place we see is when a pronoun is needed as an object of a new creature called an infinitive. What is an infinitive? We can define it as the base form of a verb, one which always has “to” with it. For example, to eat, to sleep, to clean, to move, to laugh, to drink, to study….all are infinitives.
Jack wants Emily to kiss him. In this sentence “him” is object of the infinitive “to kiss.”
Interestingly, no matter where the pronoun is in relation to the infinitive, before it or after it, the pronoun will be in object form.
Example: Emily wants Jack to stop trying to kiss her.
Emily wants him to stop trying to kiss her.
SOMETHING SPECIAL…. The VERB
One of our verbs is very special. It is the “be” verb. You know it well; we use it all the time. The present tense of the “be” verb goes like this: I am, you are, he is, she is, we are, you are, they are. The past tense is as follows: I was, you were, he was, she was, we were, you were, they were. We also use “been” when we try to say certain things. For example: I have always been a redhead. And what does this insect have to do with pronouns? Just this:
Whenever you use a “be” verb, the pronoun you use with it must be subjective.
For example: Who broke this vase? It wasn’t I. It must have been he.
Problem: The last sentence probably bothered you. You would find it more natural to say “It wasn’t me.” And indeed, when we are talking, this is exactly what we would say. However, when we need to write more carefully, with “standard” English, we must use subject pronouns when we see the “be” verb. This is a perfect example of when what it “sounds like” leads us astray.
One last trick when choosing pronouns:
Sometimes the pronoun you need to choose comes at the end of a sentence, or at least what appears to be the end of a sentence.
Example: Sue knows more about computers than (Is it “I” or “me”?)
The easiest way to choose the correct pronoun in this situation is to extend the sentence.
Example: Sue knows more about computers than I know about computers.
Sue knows more about computers than I do. However we extend the sentence, we realize that a subject pronoun is required.
2. Using Reflexive Pronouns
Reflexive pronouns are used for emphasis. They often pop up when people are amazed.
For example: David himself changed the baby. For example: The Prime Minister himself came to visit our school. Usually, however, the reflexive pronoun is just that…it reflects back to the noun or pronoun already mentioned, matter-of-factly, with much less emphasis.
Example: Daved changed the baby’s diaper himself.
What goes wrong? For some strange reason, just the way people have grown up thinking that “I” is good and “me” is bad, there is a misunderstanding about that a reflexive pronoun is more, shall we say “sophisticated” or “correct” than a the simple subject or object pronouns.
Hence, we have sentences such as “Lisa, George and myself would like to meet with you” when we should see, “Lisa, George and I would like to meet with you.” Or we could see “He hasn’t sent myself a copy; make sure you notify Diane and myself” when we should see “He hasn’t sent me a copy; make sure you notify Diane and me.”
One other danger with reflexive pronouns….be careful of unintentional meanings. Example: The little girl wanted to cook herself. It might be less gruesome to say, “The little girl wanted to cook by herself.”
THE SHIFTING PRONOUN
Another problem many of us have when it comes to pronouns is deciding which one to use throughout an essay. The result is that we shift back and forth to different pronouns, creating a disjointed and confusing piece of writing.
After one has selected the boat heis going to learn in, it would be a good idea if you first learned the theory of sailing. Most of us have at least seen a sailing boat, but seeing one and sailing one are two different things. One might think that a boat can sail only with the breeze and not against it. Or they might think that a stiff breeze is necessary to sail a boat.
If we look at the pronouns in the previous example, we can see that the writer has not decided who he is talking about. The pronouns shift from “one” to “he” to “us” to “they.” Unless there is a logical reason to shift, think of pronouns as you do your verb tense, decide which is most effective and then stick to it.
A Word About “I” Throughout high school, students are told not to use “I” or “we” in their essays, and it is true that in the past, writers usually avoided the use of these pronouns in formal writing. However, times change. Today, most modern writers do not believe that you need to use “one” or to load your sentences with passive voice to prove that you are writing about a topic with objectivity. In fact, as we have seen in the example above, the use of “one” usually creates problems. Because this pronoun is so stiff and unnatural, writers usually slip away from it and end up with confusion. The smartest choice here is probably to check with your professor as to his preference. Some remained convinced that avoiding first person pronouns is the only way writing can be truly “academic”; others take a more lenient approach to pronouns, believing that it is not the pronoun which reveals honest and thoughtful reflection.