I couldn't quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.

 

 


 

CALL US . . . OR WE CAN CALL YOU
UpWORDly Mobile EXPRESS comes calling once a month with insights and a chance for you to practice your language skills.
Subscribe now.
  


 

SEND US YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR (LANGUAGE, THAT IS)
Share grammar bloopers you’ve spotted, as well as your pet peeves.
editor@upwordlymobile.com

getting a grip on pronouns

Was the  dog chasing it’s tail? Are you always sure of where your going? Who did you choose as committee chair? Would you give preference to Stefan or I? Are you taller than me? Here are some tips on choosing pronouns, including rethinking those above.

CONTENTS

What are pronouns? 

Pronouns take the place of nouns (antecedents). Here are some examples (pronouns are italicized):

  • The female tigers stayed close to their young. Tigers is the antecedent.
  • If the workers had looked harder, they would have found the impediments and been able to address them. Workers is the antecedent, so the pronoun must be plural (they). The antecedent for them is impediments.
  • When my dad called, I spoke to him about his concerns; he seemed relieved by my answers. The antecedent for my, I and my is the speaker’s name. The antecedent for him, his and he is dad. Note that my (my dad, my answers) functions as an adjective.

Consult the Pronouns portion of mastering the parts of speech for a full listing of types of pronouns and how they are used. This Pronouns section will deal with specific problems that attend the use of pronouns.

Problem: its or it’s?

It’s is a contraction for it is or it has:

  • It’s (it is) so good to see you.
  • It’s (it has) been too long since we’ve been out to dinner.

If its is not a contraction, do not insert an apostrophe:
The dog wagged its tail in excitement. In this case, its is a possessive pronoun. Other possessive pronouns that erroneously receive apostrophes from time to time are hers, ours, yours and theirs.

  • Wrong: The fault was their’s. (Correct: The fault was theirs.)
  • Wrong: Your’s was the first house on the block to install solar collectors. (Correct: Yours was the first house on the block to install solar collectors.)

Could this possibly be any simpler?

  • Never, never, never use it’s unless it means it is or it has.

  • Possessive pronouns never have apostrophes. (See complete list of possessive pronouns under Pronouns in mastering the parts of speech.)

Problem: your or you're?

Your, like its, is a possessive pronoun. Your time will come. Be sure to take your toothbrush with you.

You're is a contraction of you are: You're the last one to arrive. Be sure you're headed in the right direction.

Problem: who or whom?

A simple – and nearly always trustworthy – test for choosing who or whom is to substitute he or him (or she or her) for the who or whom you are considering. For example . . .

(Who/Whom) are you considering for the job?
First, change the word order slightly, to put the subject, verb and object in that order:
You are considering (who/whom) for the job?
You are considering (he/him) for the job?
You are considering him for the job? (You wouldn’t say: You are considering he for the job?)
You are considering whom for the job? (Note: whom is the direct object of the verb are considering.)
Correct: Whom are you considering for the job?

Who, he and she are all in the nominative case, used as subjects or subject complements (words that mean the same thing as the subject: Clearly, the most qualified candidate is he).
Two of the best pitchers in the American League are he [David Price] and Marcus Stroman.
Whom, her and him are all in the objective case, used as direct or indirect object of the verb or as object of a preposition.

Let’s try another example:
We gave ice cream treats to all the children (who/whom) had arrived on time.
The part of the sentence you are focused upon: . . . (who/whom) arrived on time.
Substitution test: (she/her) arrived on time
Answer: she arrived on time
Correct: We gave ice cream treats to all the children who had arrived on time. (Who is the subject of the verb arrived.)

The substitution tactic is not perfect, but it works most of the time. The best approach, of course, is to detect the function of who or whom within the sentence. Is it a subject or an object? Here are some examples:

The question of (who/whom) will make the most effective leader is uppermost in the minds of the committee members.
Your focus: . . . (who/whom) will make the most effective leader . . .
The word you need is the subject of the verb will make, so you will choose who. [Note: You can still apply the substitution tactic here. Would you say she or her will make the most effective leader?]
Correct: The question of who will make the most effective leader is uppermost in the minds of the committee members.

The candidate (who/whom) the committee selected to interview first was one of three female candidates.
Your focus: . . . (who/whom) the committee selected to interview first . . .
Change word order for greater clarity: . . . the committee selected (who/whom) to interview first . . .
The word you need is direct object of the verb selected, so you will choose whom. [Again, substitution could be applied: . . . the committee selected he or him . . .?]
Correct: The candidate whom the committee selected to interview first was one of three female candidates.

All the clients for (who, whom) he worked raved about his creativity and his consummate skill.
Your focus: . . . for (who, whom) he worked . . .
Change word order: . . . he worked for (who, whom)
The word you need is object of the preposition for, so you select whom.
[Substitution: . . . he worked for she or her . . .?]
Correct: All the clients for whom he worked raved about his creativity and his consummate skill.

Who/whom reality check:
In conversation, it is acceptable to play the who or whom selection by ear (which means using who most of the time), especially since some sentences become convoluted, requiring a moment of analysis – easy for some, not for others. For example:
I had no idea who she had in mind when she referred to the company “neocons.” Grammatically correct: whom (object of verb had)

As well, even the correct grammatical choice can sound stilted, so a large Canadian bank chose the slogan Who are you running for? for its Run for the Cure breast cancer campaign. Whom is grammatically correct, as object of the preposition for.

So who seems the safest choice when in doubt, except, possibly, when the sentence contains a preposition obviously demanding whom, such as “to whom do you wish to speak?” Of course, one could turn the sentence around to say, “Who do you wish to speak to?

Written communications, especially those using formal English, still require proper use of who or whom.

Back to top

Problem: When to use I, me or myself

Many potential misuses of I, me, myself and other personal pronouns can be corrected by ear. Here are some examples:

  • Darren shot Ellis and I a dirty look. Remove Ellis and. Would you say Darren shot I a dirty look? Not likely. So me is the pronoun you want.
    Correct: Darren shot Ellis and me a dirty look.
  • Dickie, Smoot, Jughead and me went to the movie last night. Remove Dickie, Smoot, Jughead and. Me went to the movie last night? Hardly.
    Correct: Dickie, Smoot, Jughead and I went to the movie last night.
  • The company gave commendations to Frieda and myself. Two cautions are operating here. First, it sounds silly to say that the company gave commendations to myself (after you remove Frieda and). Second, reflexive pronouns, such as myself, are not used in place of me or other personal pronouns. They are used to show action reflected back on the subject (I hurt myself) or to add emphasis (I will tell him myself).
    Correct: The company gave commendations to Frieda and me.

So if your pronoun is used in combination with nouns or other pronouns (usually connected by and or or), strip them away to test whether your pronoun choice sounds correct when it stands alone.

The best way to ensure you choose the correct pronoun is to know how it is used in the sentence.
If the word is a subject or a subject complement, use the subjective case: I, we, he, she, they.
If the word is a direct object, indirect object or object of a preposition, use me, us, him, her, them.
Examples:
I returned from Egypt last night. I is the subject of the verb returned.
It was she who called you. She is a subject complement, meaning the same as the subject it.
We saw him at the train station. Him is the direct object of the verb saw. We saw what? We saw him.
Tom gave her the directions. Her is the indirect object of the verb gave. Tom gave directions (the direct object) to her.
Did you take the flowers to her? Her is the object of the preposition to.

Back to top

Problem: agreement with antecedent

Some wag observed that “a pronoun should always agree with their antecedent.” Right away you can see that their should be its, because the antecedent (pronoun) is singular.

Here are some examples:

  • Eleanor took her daughter to school. Agreement in number (singular) and gender (feminine) with the antecedent (Eleanor).
  • Ellie’s boys have brought their hockey bags with them. Agreement in number (plural) and gender (masculine) with the antecedent (boys).

What’s wrong with this sentence?
Each of the pets were special in their own way. Both the verb (were) and pronoun (their) are plural. However, each, not pets, is the subject of the sentence and should be the antecedent for the pronoun.
Correct: Each of the pets was special in its own way.

Back to top

Problem: collective nouns

What’s wrong with these sentences?

  • The choir was putting on its robes. This sentence describes the choir members acting as individuals rather than as a unit, so the pronoun and the verb need to be plural.
    Correct: The choir were putting on their robes.
  • The choir are scheduled to sing their first concert in April. This sentence refers to the choir as a single collective entity, so the pronoun and the verb need to be singular.
    Correct: The choir is scheduled to sing its first concert in April.

The rule: With collective nouns such as choir, club, committee,
department and so on, use the singular when the group is acting as one and use the plural when members of the group are acting as individuals.

Back to top

Problem: who, which or that?

Do not use which to refer to people:

  • Wrong: Ardis is the clerk which handles this type of concern.
    Correct: Ardis is the clerk that (or who) handles this type of concern.

    To be safe, use who for all situations that refer to people.

Back to top

Problem: what pronoun to use with than

Than introduces the second part of a comparison:

  • Eldridge is taller than I. Why use I? Because in order to complete the meaning of the sentence, you would say Eldridge is taller than I am tall. It’s awkward, and you don’t need to say it, but you do need to think it in order to select the correct pronoun.
    Eldridge likes Arthur better than me. In this case, the mental extension of the sentence reads: Eldridge likes Arthur better than he likes me. Once you have mentally filled out the meaning of the sentence, the pronoun choice becomes clear.
    NOTE: In the sentence immediately above, one could argue that the extended sentence could read: Eldridge likes Arthur better than I (like Arthur). If that were your intended meaning, then this construct would be correct.

More information on pronouns under Pronouns in mastering the parts of speech.

Back to top