Pronoun errors can be subdivided into the following
Shifts in Person
The most common pronoun problem in
SSU student papers is inappropriate shift in person:
If there were
no more questions, then we had time to work on our
homework before class ended. The grades that you
received were what you had earned for the class.
According to Reviewing Basic
Grammar (a textbook previously used in English 0095), "Person refers
to the differences among the person speaking (first person), the
person spoken to (second person), and the person or thing being
spoken about" (Yarber and Yarber 152). In the example
above, the writer initially uses first person (we), and then
suddenly starts using second person (you) instead.
Yarber and Yarber explain that such shifts are often distracting:
"When you make a mistaken shift in person, you have shown that you
have lost your way in your own sentence--that you have forgotten
what you were writing about" (152).
Because the sentences in the example
above are from a paper in which a student is telling about her own
experiences, she should have kept the entire text in first person:
If there were no more
questions, then we had time to work on our homework
before class ended. The grades that we received
were what we had earned for the class.
Chapter 40 (pages 380-81) of The
Longman Concise Companion provides advice for avoiding
inappropriate shifts in person.
Shifts in Number
The second most common pronoun
problem is inappropriate shift in number:
students experience the teaching methods of many different
teachers throughout his/her high school career.
The basic rule for number agreement
is straightforward: Use a singular pronoun to refer to a singular
noun or to a singular pronoun; use a plural pronoun to refer to a
plural noun or to a plural pronoun. (Note that two singular
pronouns joined by a slash or by or are treated as one
singular pronoun, while two singular pronouns joined by and
are considered plural.) Thus, the example sentence above should
have been written:
experience the teaching methods of many different teachers
throughout their high school careers.
Sometimes, the most practical way to
fix an agreement problem is to change the antecedent (the noun), not
the pronoun. Consider the following passages:
can learn to depend on their own merit for success.
They can also do almost anything they want without
add their friends' screen names to their IM lists.
Changing the antecedent (student,
one) in each passage is the simplest way to correct the
Students can learn to
depend on their own merit for success. They
can do almost anything they want without interference.
add their friends' screen names to their
The grammar problems could
also be fixed by changing the pronouns, but this solution is more
complicated and the corrected sentences do not flow as smoothly as
those in the first rewrites:
A student can learn to
depend on his or her own merit for success. He
or she can do almost anything he or she wants without
add one's friends' screen names to one's IM
use of his or her and he or she can be awkward, and
the repeated use of one can sound pretentious.
Therefore, some writers intentionally use their and they
as singular problems, despite the fact that many of their readers
may object to the grammar error. There are also some writers
who use "generic
he" to refer to a single person: "A student can learn
to depend on his own merit for success." In fact,
generic he was considered the norm. In 1900,
grammarian Thomas W. Harvey advised students: "The English language
being destitute of a pronoun of the third person singular and common
gender, usage has sanctioned the employment of the masculine forms
he, his, him, for that purpose; as, in speaking of scholars
generally, we say, 'A thorough scholar studies his lesson
carefully'" (A New English Grammar for Schools, p. 92).
Although some established writers use
singular they and generic he, contemporary students
must understand that many readers are offended by such choices.
Therefore, do not use singular they or generic he in
college writing. See pages 418-19 of The Longman Concise Companion or the
National Council of Teachers of English website for more
Vague Pronoun Reference
The third most common pronoun error
is vague pronoun reference. The standard definition of
pronoun is "a word that takes the place of a noun or another
pronoun" (Yarber and Yarber, Reviewing Basic Grammar, p.
318). Vague pronoun reference is a problem that confuses
readers when they encounter pronouns but cannot figure out what the
antecedents are. In the
following example, it does not refer to any noun previously
mentioned in the text:
Seven is about
a psycho serial killer who commits crimes against people who
have committed one of the seven deadly sins. He creates a
puzzle out of it for the police to solve.
When we are speaking, we often use
pronouns like it and they without antecedents:
In writing, however, these vague
references may confuse readers. See Chapter 38 (pages 368-73)
of The Longman Concise Companion for advice on how to avoid
vague pronoun reference.
Some pronoun errors do not fall
neatly into one of the three categories above. Some students
use the wrong form of a pronoun or the wrong pronoun.
Wrong Pronoun Forms. SSU students almost never use the
wrong form of a pronoun when that pronoun stands alone, but they
frequently become confused when the pronoun is part of a compound
subject or object:
Her and my
father have been married for a little more than 15 years.
[The student who wrote this sentence never used a possessive
pronoun as the singular subject of a sentence, as in: Her has
been married for a little more than 15 years.]
Me or my
children would never set foot in his house again. [The
student who wrote this sentence never used an objective pronoun
as the singular subject of a sentence, as in: Me would never
set foot in his house again.]
When proofreading papers, pay close
attention to compound subjects and object. Chapter 33 (pages 331-34) of
The Longman Concise Companion offers suggestions for
proofreading text with these compound elements.
Wrong Choice of Pronouns. The pronouns most likely to be used
incorrectly are that, which, and who.
through his transformation, that makes him
a totally different different person.
She takes him
to a doctor, which confirms that the blackouts are real.
one of those twisted people that is crazy about blood and
In informal writing or in
conversation, that, which, and who can sometimes be interchangeable.
In college writing, however, you should be careful using these
Phil goes through his
transformation, which makes him a totally different person.
The Longman Concise Companion
Although the distinction
between that and which is weakening in many contexts, formal
writing often requires you to know the difference. Use
that in a clause that is essential to the meaning of a
sentence (restrictive modifier); use which with a
clause that does not provide essential meaning
(nonrestrictive modifier). (489)
Furthermore, in formal writing, use
who--not that or which--to refer to people:
She takes him to a doctor, who
confirms that the blackouts are real.
I'm not one of those twisted
people who is crazy about blood and gore movies.
Additional discussion about
essential and non-essential
information is available under the section on comma errors.