Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Top 20 Grammar Erros: Vague Pronoun Reference

Vague Pronoun Reference
Yesterday, we looked at the number one grammar error in the top 20 grammar errors:
no comma after introductory element. Today, we’ll examine the number two grammar error: the vague pronoun reference.

The Pronouns

A pronoun replaces a noun or even another pronoun, and there are several types of pronouns to concern yourself with:
personal pronouns
subjective personal pronouns
objective personal pronouns
possessive personal pronouns
demonstrative pronouns
interrogative pronouns
indefinite pronouns
relative pronouns
reflexive pronouns
intensive pronouns
Let’s go over each one of these pronoun categories.
The following is an excerpt from the electronic grammar course at the University of Ottawa’s Writing Center. This specific excerpt was written by Heather MacFadyen. My personal comments have been placed in brackets.
The personal pronoun refers to a person or thing and changes form to indicate person, number, gender, and case. The subjective personal pronoun acts as the subject of a sentence. These pronouns include I, you, she, he, it, we, and they. [A plural you in the English language also exists, but native speakers don’t really bother to make that distinction.] The objective personal pronoun acts as an object of a verb, compound verb, preposition, or infinitive phrase. The objective personal pronouns include me, you, her, him, it, us, you, and them. The possessive personal pronoun indicates ownership and include mine, yours, hers, his, its, ours, and theirs. (UOttawa HyperGrammar).
[That was the easy part, because beginning with the demonstrative pronouns, things gets confusing. As a native speaker, this stuff is cake. You don’t think about it, you just do it but sometimes, as a writer, you are forced to examine the language with a closer lens.]
The demonstrative pronoun points to a noun or a pronoun, [which is a lot like the personal pronoun]. [However, demonstrative pronouns are words that you may not necessarily think of as pronouns.] They are this, that, these, and those. This and these refers to nouns or pronouns which are close in physical space or time. That and those refers to nouns or pronouns that are farther away in physical space or time. Interrogative pronouns ask questions, [and—again—you may not naturally classify these as pronouns], but they are: who, whom, which, what, whoever, whomever, whichever, and whatever. Who and whom and their compounds refer to people, who working as the subject of the sentence and whom acting as the object of a verb, preposition, or a verbal. Which and what refers to inanimate objects or animals (UOttawa HyperGrammar).
[And I know, right now you are thinking, “Oh my God, what’s a verbal?!” Don’t worry about it. Keep going. It gets easier, I promise.]
Relative pronouns link phrases or clauses together and include who, whom, that, which, whoever, whomever, and whichever. An indefinite pronoun refers to an identifiable but not specified person or thing. The most common of these pronouns are all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, each, everybody, everyone, everything, few, many, nobody, none, one, several, some, somebody, and someone. Reflexive pronouns refer back to the subject of the clause or sentence and these pronouns are myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves (UOttawa HyperGrammar).
[Oh, and yeah, all of these reflexive pronouns are also used as intensive pronouns, and intensive pronouns refer back to the word right before it, as in “I myself need a break from all of this grammar.”]

Boiling Pronouns

What it boils down to: a pronoun is used to replace another word. Most of the time, you’ll probably just concern yourself with the top five pronouns: I, you, she, he, and it. Pronouns are used to make writing and reading less repetitive and smooth; however, because you are replacing words with other words, pronoun usage becomes a problem when the reader cannot tell which word the pronoun is referring back to. This is the vague pronoun reference error.
Understanding the pronoun categories, the specific words in each category, and where the pronouns can be placed and used in a sentence can clear up a good portion of any vague references within a piece of writing.
For example, you may have noticed the crossed out sentence two paragraphs above:
This is the vague pronoun reference error.
This is a demonstrative pronoun and should refer to a noun close in physical space or time. The pronoun in the example sentence neither refers to a noun in physical space or time. In fact, the pronoun this in the example sentence refers to the ENTIRE idea of the previous statement. Pronouns must be boiled down to a specific, individual noun-word.
The Antecedent
The noun the pronoun refers back to is termed the antecedent, and every pronoun must have one.
Did you notice the indefinite pronoun above?
The noun the pronoun refers back to is termed the antecedent, and every pronoun must have one.
One is the indefinite pronoun, and its antecedent is—well, antecedent.

Unclear Antecedents

I have hopefully made clear that a pronoun must always refer back to a single antecedent, but what do you do with the following sentence:
Joe gave Steve the Call of Duty game that he played with constantly.
Who does he refer to? Joe or Steve? Well, maybe my brother Joe is reading this blog because he refers to Steve, and to fix this sentence:
Joe gave Steve the Call of Duty game that Steve played with constantly.
Okay, so wow. We are done. Tomorrow, no comma in a compound sentence!



  1. Pronouns always give me problems it seems. And I also happen to be the queen of comma splices, though I never knew it until they were pointed out to me.

    1. Comma splices are not always bad. Depends on what you are writing, what reason you have for the splice. An easy, quick and dirty fix for a comma splice is the semi-colon, which is of course the bastard child of the comma and period.

      And, pronouns, by the way IMHO, are probably the most hated parts of language ever. Try mixing in other languages!

  2. English Pronouns is very important because its structure is used in every day conversation. The more you practice the subject, the closer you get to mastering the English language.

    Subject and Object Pronouns

    1. Julia, I'm glad you liked the post and thought it useful. How did you find out about the blog? :)