4 Pronoun Mistakes To Avoid

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Pronouns

Pronouns are wonderful little words that make speaking and writing easier. Imagine if you had to use your name every time you refer to yourself. Instead of saying “I left my keys in my car,” you’d have to say, “Irving Pigwart left Irving Pigwart’s keys in Irving Pigwart’s car.” And just think how irritating this would be if your name really was Irving Pigwart!

So we should be grateful for the person who thought of the pronoun in the first place. Whoever you are, Mr. Pronoun Inventor, we salute you!

Remember, pronouns are substitute words. They take the place of nouns and other pronouns. Words that get replaced by pronouns are called antecedents.

A common problem for writers is being unclear about a pronoun’s antecedent.  Here are some ways that happens:

1The Generic You

The pronoun you takes the place of the name of the person addressed when you speak or write. Avoid using the word you to refer to people in general, rather than the particular person you are speaking to. Student writers often write sentences like:

Bad:     When you walk through the doors, you enter a large, paneled library. 

It’s not likely that the reader is actually walking into the library you describe as he reads, so using you is awkward, at least in formal writing. Some suggest replacing you with the indefinite pronoun one. I don’t think that’s much of an improvement in most cases these days:

Still Bad: When one visits Paris, one should visit the Lourve.

One sounds stiff and overly formal. It’s just not the way most people speak anymore. Often the only way to correct sentences with the generic you is to start over and reword the whole thing:

Better:  The doors opened into a large, paneled library. 

Better:  Vacationers in Paris should make a point of visiting the Lourve.

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2The Anonymous They

Good writers also avoid using the “anonymous they” to refer to that mysterious and unidentifiable group responsible for just about everything in the universe.

Bad:      They should invent a more efficient automobile.

Better: The automobile industry should invent a more efficient car.

Bad:      They say no two snowflakes are exactly alike.

Better: It’s commonly known that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.

Never use they unless you can identify who they are.

3Its Don’t Talk:

Another awkward habit is using the word it without making clear exactly what it is.

Bad:     It says in my textbook that turkeys cannot fly.          

Bad:     On the TV show I saw last night it said that unemployment is rising.

Improve these kinds of sentences by changing the subject of the verb and getting rid of some unnecessary words.

Better: My textbook says that turkeys can’t fly.

Better: The TV show I saw last night said that unemployment is rising.

4Ambiguity

Sometimes a reader can’t tell which noun is the correct antecedent of a pronoun. Don’t make him guess.

Confusing: Tom said Jim lost his wallet. (Whose wallet was lost — Tom’s or Jim’s?)

Confusing: The union workers were angry with their supervisors because of the size of their pay raise. (Who got the raise — the workers or the supervisors?)

There’s no trick to improving these. Just make sure that the pronouns you use refer clearly to the correct antecedent.

Better: “Jim lost his wallet,” said Tom.

Better: The union workers were angry at the size of their supervisors’ pay raise.

            Pronouns are valuable little words. Use them carefully. If you don’t, you’ll only confuse your readers.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Lia
    Lia07-10-2015

    Hello. I’ve just finished reading the “Top Ten Mistakes Teen Writers Make” just now. I like the book so much. The explanation can be applied directly to practice, thus making the book really useful. As for the blog, I’ve just read few posts but the ones I’ve read are all good, including this one. I wish you happiness and success, thank you for helping me and lots of people in writing!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-11-2015

      Wow. That’s very nice. Thank you, Lia. I’m glad you are benefiting from the ebook and this blog. I appreciate your taking the time to say such nice things.

  2. Joan
    Joan08-27-2014

    The chart is excellent; it provides helpful information in an engaging way.

  3. Blaise
    Blaise06-01-2014

    Hi, I don’t know if you are reading this anymore, but I’ll try anyways.

    Is there such a thing as using pronouns too little or too much?

    When I read my own writing (short fiction stories), I sometimes second guess myself whether I am using too few or too many pronouns. Maybe I’m just psyching myself out, but I wonder if it might be a bit jarring for the reader to see the same word–either a name or pronoun–multiple times over the course of a paragraph or two.

    Are there guidelines for optimal pronoun use from the perspective of reading flow rather than clarity?

    • Blaise
      Blaise06-01-2014

      Also thanks for your time 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-01-2014

      Hi Blaise, I keep up with the blog. Things are busy at the moment, so it’s not every day, but I don’t go long without checking for comments.

      There’s no particular rule for pronoun use, but any word can become irritating or distracting if it’s used too often. It’s simply a matter of style and intuition. If you think it might be distracting, you’re probably right, so look for ways to avoid being repetitious. Then again, sometimes we overanalyze our own writing. You should ask some friends to read it critically and see if they notice anything.

  4. Tip Lewis
    Tip Lewis03-22-2013

    Of course, a book can’t “say” anything, can it?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko03-22-2013

      Not in the literal sense, no. But our language is full of idioms like that. It’s not unusual to hear something like “This article says to….” or “I read a book that said….” We all know the speaker isn’t being literal.

      • Huey Lewis without the news
        Huey Lewis without the news09-21-2013

        Would “My textbook showed me that turkeys cannot fly,” or “I learned from my textbook that turkeys cannot fly.” be acceptable substitutes?

  5. Rhonda Barfield
    Rhonda Barfield03-06-2013

    Great blog, Brian, and I love the chart!

  6. MizzG
    MizzG03-06-2013

    this is good! i’m just today reviewing pronouns for the ca state tests. my 8th graders don’t get it and don’t seem to care. ima show them this page. maybe it will help them see that using the generic “you” in their writing is ineffective.
    i especially appreciate the good examples.
    tnx!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko03-06-2013

      My pleasure, MizzG. All the best to you and your students.

  7. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko03-06-2013

    I guess I couldn’t decide between “common knowledge” and “commonly known” so I split the difference. Thanks, JJ. All better now. 🙂

  8. JJ
    JJ03-06-2013

    I’m not completely sure, but I think that there is a mistake in the fourth sentence in section 2. It says, “It’s commonly knowledge that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.” I think that it should be “It’s common knowledge that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.” or “It’s commonly known that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.” Thanks for all the fun posts!

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