Grammar: Pronouns


Pronouns are used in order to avoid the needless repetition of nouns –

      Jill said Jill will join us if Jill can persuade Jill’s boss to give Jill the
      time off.

After the first occurrence of Jill, we would naturally use pronouns –

      Jill said she will join us if she can persuade her boss to give her the
      time off.

Confusions and difficulties with pronouns usually involve one or more of the following –

      I and me: personal pronouns
      who and whom; that, which and who: relative pronouns
      attaching pronouns to nouns: ambiguous pronouns, the unfererenced it
      me and myselfreflexive pronouns


Personal Pronouns

      Subject pronouns       Object pronouns   

                I                                  me
                you                              you
                he                                him
                she                              her

                it                                  it
                one                              one

                we                                us
                they                             them

I and meshe and herwe and us

As we can see, apart from you, it and one, personal pronouns change when their case is changed from subject to object, and we usually have no 
difficulty selecting the right one. Thus I won the raffle (where I is the subject of the sentence) 
becomes The raffle was won by me (where me is the
object of the sentence). But in some circumstances, we are apt to use 
a subject pronoun when an object pronoun is required –

      Tom and Susan sent my wife and I an invitation to their wedding. (Incorrect)

      I don’t think it’s fair that all the decisions are left to you and I. (Incorrect)

Perhaps because we were so often upbraided at school for saying You and me instead of You and I, we tend to forget that You and me is the correct
expression in the objective case. 
Curiously, confusion rarely occurs when there is only one object pronoun –

      Tom and Susan sent me an invitation to their wedding. (Correct)

      I don’t think it’s fair that all the decisions are left to me. (Correct)

But the introduction of a second object tends to throw us. All we need to remember, however, is that if me fits on its own, it fits with other object
nouns and pronouns –

      Tom and Susan sent my wife and me an invitation to their wedding. (Correct)

      I don’t think it’s fair that all the decisions are left to you and me. (Correct)

In other circumstances, we make the opposite mistake of using object pronouns for subject pronouns. Errors of this kind commonly occur in
sentences with the verb to be and in comparisons following the words as or than

      It wasn’t me who got us into this mess. (Incorrect)

      This is him. (Incorrect)

      They are not as good a team as us. (Incorrect)

      Mark can run faster than me. (Incorrect)

In English, the verb to be does not take an object, so the first two sentences should read –

      It wasn’t I who got us into this mess. (Correct)

      This is he. (Correct)

The errors with as and than, on the other hand, are plainly seen when the relevant verb is repeated –

      They are not as good a team as us are

      Mark can run faster than me can.

Corrected –

      They are not as good a team as we.

      Mark can run faster than I.

Yet so pervasive have the uses of the object pronouns become that their correct counterparts can appear pretentious. It seems we face the dilemma 
of appearing either illiterate 

      It wasnt me who was to blame

or pompous 

      It wasnt I who was to blame.

There is no simple solution to the problem. With statements of comparison, we can avoid both pretentiousness and bad grammar by using the 
subject pronoun and repeating the verb –

      They are not as good a team as we are

      Mark can run faster than I can.

But in other cases we have no guide but discretion. The lexicographer, R. W. Burchfield, recommends that subject pronouns should be used when
the pronoun is followed by who or that clauses, and object 
pronouns elsewhere. We should say, for example, It was she who taught me to sing, but
in answer to the question Who taught 
you to sing?, we are forgiven for saying It was her.1


Relative Pronouns

who and whom

Called relative pronouns (or interrogative pronouns when they appear in questions), these two culprits are easily confused. Grammatically, the case
is straightforward; 
who is the subject pronoun and whom, the object pronoun. But the picture becomes a little more complicated if we take account
of social as well as grammatical criteria.

To begin with, however, there are two useful tips that can help us with correct usage. Firstly, prepositions are followed by whom, not who2 

      Alice Liddell was the young girl for whom Lewis Carroll wrote Alices
      Adventures in Wonderland.

      To whom did you wish to speak?

      The best man is standing in the front row, behind whom you can see me
      wearing that ridiculous tie.

Secondly, we can apply the he/him (or she/her) test. That is, whenever we are unsure about which pronoun to use, we substitute he and him and
see which sounds correct. He is matched with who and him is matched with whom 

      Who did you meet at the party?

Applying the rule, we find we would say I met him at the party, not I met he at the party. The sentence therefore needs correcting 

      Whom did you meet at the party?


      Kelly is the candidate who got the job.
(She got the job, not her got the job, so who is correct)

      It was H. M. Stanley whom allegedly said, ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’
      (He said, not him said, so the pronoun should be who)

      Do you know who wrote that tune?
      (He wrote it, not him wrote it, so who is correct)

      She is the woman whom I love.
      (I love her, not love she, so whom is correct)

      The police knew exactly who to question.
      (They want to question him, not question he, so the pronoun should be whom)

      Whom can be compared to such a writer as Dickens?
      (He can be compared, not him can, so the pronoun should be who)

So much for grammar. Socially, incorrect usage occasionally becomes so prevalent that, as we saw with the I/me dilemma above, the correct
alternatives appear pompous 

      The police knew exactly whom to question.

In everday speech and informal writing, then, it might be expedient to use the incorrect but more ingenuous versions 

      The police knew exactly who to question.

      Who did you meet at the party?

      Who did you work for in those days?

      It's up to you who you want to sit with.

      Who did Lennox Lewis successfully defend his world
      heavyweight championship title against in 2002?

that, which and who

Errors of use with the relative pronouns thatwhich and who are fairly common, but they rarely cause confusion. If we want to get it right, however,
the rules are these.

If we are referring to a person, then who is used if the person is specific –

      She is the doctor who saved my life

      He might have scored the try but it was I who fought my way through
      the defence

and either who or that if the person is representative of a group –

      She is one of the team of doctors who (or thatsaved my life

      Jack is the kind of man who (or that) cant take no for an answer.

All other nouns (animals, plants, inanimate things and concepts) take that when they appear in essential clauses –

      There’s the dog that always snaps at my heels

      This is the holiday brochure that came through the post

      Brazil was the country that dashed England’s hopes of winning the 2002 
      World Cup

and which when they appear in inessential clauses – 

      That dog, which you see over there, is the one that always snaps at my

      This holiday brochure, which came through the post, has some excellent

      Brazil, which exports a great deal of coffee, was the country that dashed
      England’s hopes of winning the 2002 
World Cup.

(See essential and inessential clauses.)

Note that, while who is confined to people, whose may be used with all count nouns (nouns that can take plurals), whether animate or inanimate 

      Liz is the woman whose partner you met at the conference

      This is the horse whose trainer I met    

      That is the house whose roof was damaged in the storm.

Note, too, that with two nouns or pronouns, it is the second that determines the relative pronoun –

      Was it he or the beer in him that was responsible?

      Was it the beer in him or he himself who was responsible?


Ambiguous Pronouns

A pronoun must usually refer to a specific noun, called its referent or antecedent. For example, in the sentence 

      Anne left the party because she felt unwell

she is the pronoun of Anne, and Anne is the referent or antecedent of she.

When we talk of an ambiguous pronoun, we mean a pronoun that could be referring to more than one noun or (which amounts to the same thing) a
pronoun whose antecedent is unclear 

      Before the baby is given a banana, it should be mashed

      Please complete the form with the required information about your
      dwelling, which should then be sent to County Hall in the pre-paid

Common sense tells us that it refers to the banana rather than the baby, and which, to the form rather than the dwelling. But common sense cannot
always come to the rescue –

      Joanne’s sister said that she’s studying French.

Grammatically, Joanne’s sister is the subject of the sentence, not Joanne, but we cannot be sure that the author of the sentence is sufficiently versed
in grammar to know this. The ambiguous pronoun she thus leaves us uncertain about which of the two 
women is studying French.


      When Carl reversed his car into the concrete bollard, he badly damaged

This time, we do not know whether it is the car or the bollard that has been badly damaged.

Ambiguity is often dispelled when the problematic sentence is seen in context –

      Light-heavyweight, John Hammond, left school with a respectable ten
      GCSEs, but his performance was always better in the ring than it was in
      the classroom. His headteacher told me that he had always wanted to be
      a professional boxer.

There is no doubt here that he refers to the ex-pupil and not the headteacher. In isolation, however, such sentences need to be clarified in one of
three ways. We can avoid the pronoun and use the noun –

      His headteacher said that John had always wanted to be a professional

repeat the noun with the pronoun –

      His headteacher said that he, John, had always wanted to be a professional

or avoid both the noun and pronoun and use an appositive (a variant of the noun) –

      His headteacher said that his old pupil had always wanted to be a
      professional boxer.

The problem of ambiguity is at its worst in lengthy passages where the writer carelessly throws in a pronoun that is difficult to attach to a specific
noun –

      The speaker said that the chemicals used in the production of GM foods 
      could possibly create harmful antidote-resistant bacteria, and that her 
      organisation intended to call for a public demonstration to draw attention 
      to the issue. This is something about which we should be very concerned.

This, opening the second sentence, refers to nothing specific in the one before. The writer might be sympathetic to the speaker’s cause, in which
case this could be taken to represent the use of potentially harmful chemicals. On the other hand, the writer 
might be a GM food producer so that
the pronoun represents the adverse publicity the prospective 
demonstration is likely to create. In such cases, therefore, the writer should specify a
noun or noun phrase in place of the 
pronoun –

      The use of these chemicals is something about which we should be very

or –

      The harmful publicity that such a demonstration will create is something
      about which we should be very concerned.

(See also squinting and dangling modifiers)


The Unreferenced it

The word pronoun means 'in place of a noun'. It is a paradox, then, that the pronoun it often refers to no noun at all. Called a prop, its use is
legitimate in spite of its having no referent

      It was Christmas Day in the workhouse.

Only a stranger to the language would think to ask what was Christmas Day in the workhouse.

Similarly –

      It’s time we drank up and left

      It’s difficult to put a price on this vase

      It rained all day on Sunday

      It’s not as if he meant to hurt her feelings

      It is advisable for pedestrians to walk on the right hand side of country

But in other contexts, the unreferenced it is substandard –

      It says in the article that people should eat more fruit and leafy-green

In such cases, the sentence should be rewritten –

      The article claimed that people should eat more fruit and leafy-green


Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are the nine words ending in -self or -selves, and their principal rule of use is that they always appear with their referents (the
nouns or personal pronouns they represent) –

      I myself
yourself (singular)
      you yourselves (plural)
      one oneself
      Jack himself
/ he himself
      Jill herself / she herself
      the hill itself / it itself
      we ourselves
      Jack and Jill themselves / they themselves

Reflexives 'reflect' their referents in sentences where subject and object are the same thing 

      I shaved myself.

I did the shaving (subject) and I was shaved (object). 

Similarly –

      I could feel myself getting more and more angry.

      Emily hurt herself when she slipped on the patio.

      The fire finally burned itself out.

      Sophie watched the cat as it washed itself.      

      The members of the band excelled themselves in the concert.

      Help yourself(You understood)  

Reflexives are used only as recipients of the verb, never performers –

      Ken and myself usually play a round of golf on Saturday mornings. (Incorrect)

The sentence, of course, should begin, Ken and I.

But reflexives can be used to emphasise verb-performing subjects, in which capacity they are known as intensive pronouns –

      It was the neighbourhood we didn’t like; the house itself was fine.

      It was an indication of the seriousness with which the government
      regarded the matter that the prime minister himself chose to intervene.

      Her six-year-old daughter drew that picture herself.

As already mentioned, reflexive pronouns must be preceded by their referents. In this respect, the most common errors are the substitution of
myself for me and yourself for you.4 To adapt an earlier example –

      Tom and Susan sent my wife and myself an invitation to their wedding.
      (Incorrect; there is no antecedent I or me paired with 

       I think the best people for this job are Cath and yourself.
      (Incorrect; there is no antecedent you paired with yourself.)


      Tom and Susan sent my wife and me an invitation to their wedding. (Correct)

      I think the two people best suited to this job are Cath and you(Correct)



R. W. Burchfield (ed.), The New Fowlers Modern English Usage, Revised Third Edition, OUP, 1998.
2 The prepositions most commonly encountered with whom are about, after, against, among, aroundbefore, behindbeneathbeside, between, by
   concerningdespite, following, for, from, in, like, near, of, overregarding, through, to, towardsunder, underneathunlikewith and without.
3 For the curious, it was Mike Tyson. The fight took place in Memphis on 8 June and Lewis won with a KO in the eighth round.
4 Not all sources agree on this point. There are certainly many examples of myself in reputable use with no antecedent, but it is difficult to see the 
   justification. Burchfield, for example, curiously claims that myself without an antecedent may legitimately be substituted for me in cases where (a)
   there is more than one object and where (b) myself appears as the last of those objects. Thus Tom and Susan sent myself an invitation to their 
   wedding is incorrect, while Tom and Susan sent my wife and myself an invitation to their wedding is acceptable. Burchfield cites his own words 
   as such a legitimate use: This booklet results from a monitoring exercise of BBC radio in mid-1979 undertaken by Professor Denis Donoghue, Mr 
   Andrew Timothy and myself at the invitation of [etc.]. Equally as curious is Burchfields apparent reluctance to extend  this concession to other 
   reflexives such as yourself. (R. W. BurchfieldIbid.)

























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