A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun or noun phrase. Using pronouns correctly eliminates unnecessary noun repetition in your writing.
Unnecessary repetition: Mary is in Mary's office, but Mary asked not to be interrupted.
Pronoun use eliminates repetition: Mary is in her office, but she asked not to be interrupted.
Personal pronouns (the most common type)
Personal pronouns refer to people and things; they can be singular, plural, or both. Their forms change according to their grammatical function in a sentence. When using personal pronouns, it is acceptable to use they, them, and their to refer to a single person. Some people use other less well-known pronouns, and it is important to always use the pronoun provided by the individual. See the additional resources at the end of the page for more information on personal pronouns.
The following lists of singular and plural pronouns have been adapted from The Little Brown Compact Handbook, 3rd Edition, by J.E. Aaron and M. McArthur.
Singular pronouns as subject: I, you, he, she, it, they
Singular pronouns as object: me, you, him, her, it, them
Singular pronouns as possessive: my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, their/theirs, its
Plural pronouns as subject: we, you, they
Plural pronouns as object: us, you, them
Plural pronouns as possessive: our/ours, your/yours, their/theirs
Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those)
Demonstrative pronouns identify or point to a noun.
- e.g., This lab report is due tomorrow.
- e.g., That looks like the computer I used to have.
- e.g., Put these pencils on your desk.
- e.g., Those were the best days of my life.
Relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which, that)
Relative pronouns begin adjective clauses and usually refer to the noun that comes right before them.
- e.g., Rachael is a manager whom everyone respects.
- e.g., I don't know who is responsible for setting up the lab equipment.
- e.g., You need to talk to the students whose laptops were stolen.
- e.g., My Sociology textbook, which costs $125, is full of factual and grammatical errors.
- e.g., The new software lacks many of the benefits that the company promised.
Using pronouns clearly and correctly
Pronouns should agree in number
Generally, singular pronouns refer to singular nouns, and plural pronouns refer to plural nouns. Lack of agreement can lead to awkwardness or confusion.
- Incorrect: The company [singular noun] announced that they [plural pronoun] had been sold.
- Correct: The company [singular noun] announced that it [singular pronoun] had been sold.
Pronouns should agree in person
Throughout your document, you should try to maintain a consistent point of view by avoiding shifts between first, second, and third person pronouns.
- Incorrect: When you go to class, one should have our homework ready.
In the above example, the point of view is inconsistent; pronouns shift from second to third to first person (you, one, our).
- Correct: When you go to class, you should have your homework ready.
In the above example, the chosen pronouns (you and your) are consistently in second person form.
Pronouns should have clear references
When there are two or more nouns in your sentence, your reader should not have to think twice when linking the pronoun to its associated noun. The following examples demonstrate unclear pronoun references and potential revisions to improve clarity.
- Unclear: Although the car hit the tree, it was not damaged.
- Clear: The car was not damaged even though it hit the tree.
- Unclear: I have attached some data on euthanasia in my email. I urge you to consider this seriously.
- Clear: I urge you to consider this information seriously.
Additional resources for gender inclusive pronouns:
Return to Writing Centre Resources.