Pronoun Problems

Sadly, some of the most common errors in the English language are tied to some of the smallest words – pronouns. What follows is an examination of a few of the absolute basics and a heads-up about the most common examples of pronoun abuse.

The three main types of pronouns

Nominative– these are the ones that act as the subjects of sentences (I, They, We)
Objective– These are the direct object pronouns (me, us, them)
Possessive– A possessive PRONOUN can be troublesome… Words that answer the question, “Whose is it?” in a single word: (e.g. OURS, MINE, THEIRS) are definitely pronouns. They replace a more specific object. Words like my, our, and their that require a noun after them, are sometimes considered possessive pronouns, and sometimes considered possessive ADJECTIVES as in: Whose book? MY book (the word “my” here modifies the word “book”). It depends on which experts you ask. To keep it easy, we’ll treat those (e.g. “MY book”) as pronouns, not adjectives.
There are further breakdowns within these three categories, but for now, let’s keep things simple. The only other types that we want you to be aware of are…

Reflexive– These are the “-self” pronouns. (Himself, Myself)
Personal– Any pronouns one would use when referring to a person (he, them, our)
Impersonal– Any pronouns one would not use when referring to a person (it, that, these, which)

COMMON ERROR #1 – Compound subject or direct object

Nobody in this class would ever say “Doug gave the ball to I,” or “Him ate all the bread,” yet intelligent people make similar mistakes all the time, saying things like, “Me and my friends threw them a party,” or “They sold watches to Mike and I.” The cause of the confusion is the jump from a simple subject or direct object, like in the first two examples, to the compound ones, like in the latter two examples (reminder: a compound subject is when there is more than one entity in the subject). Keep your ears open to this mistake and catch yourself whenever you are using the compound structures. You can know if you are using the correct pronouns if you get rid of the “guest” who is causing confusion … in other words, you wouldn’t say, “Me threw the party” or “They sold the watches to I”.


NOW TRY THIS QUIZ (some of the answers require you to understand rule #5 below, which is somewhat more of an obscure rule… Also, a few of the questions on these quizzes fall outside of our five common mistakes)

(If you want more practice, try HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE)

COMMON ERROR #2 – Who is this ‘myself’ person?

Even if problem #1 is giving you difficulty, here’s an easy problem to stamp out – using “myself” as a cop out when you don’t know which pronoun to use (the same goes for himself, herself & themselves). For example, “They visited Marie and myself last week.” What’s more, lose the notion that this makes one sound more sophisticated or intelligent, like people who insist on pronouncing the silent ‘t’ in ‘often.’ It doesn’t. Myself is a reflexive pronoun, and should be used to indicate stress (I myself answered the call) or a reflection on self-identity (I am just being myself). As a matter of fact, you should NEVER have a sentence that includes “myself” that does not include the subject “I”– this is the definition of a reflexive pronoun (which you may know from foreign language reflexive verbs).


1) The criminals robbed both Harold and myself.

2) Wanda and herself went to the bookstore.

3) I offered to give themselves the cantaloupe. (Do you see how ridiculous these sound yet?)

4) Use myself correctly in an original sentence.

5) Use, for the last time in your life, “myself” incorrectly (doesn’t it feel good to be rid of this plague?).

COMMON ERROR #3 – Shape-shifting (almost always from singular to plural)

The shape-shifter is one of the most common pronoun mistakes out there. It is grammatically incorrect to say, “A police officer must always keep an eye on their gun,” or, “I’m going to miss you like a child misses their blanket” (she may be Fergielicious, but she’s also grammarevolting). This problem has a simple root – avoiding the clunky, yet technically accurate “his or her.” This problem pops up frequently with singular subjects that mutate into plural pronouns, like the above examples. Two less common variations of the shape-shifting pronoun are the transformation of “I” into “you” (“hate it when you get popcorn stuck in your teeth” – unless you are being weirdly mean, this is not right) or the assumption that everybody is a man (“A teacher gets to take his work home with him every day” (see below for an important usage note)). This last problem is simple to fix – make the subject plural, since you are speaking generally anyway (“Teachers get to take their work home with them”). When in doubt, one can always fall back on using the genderless singular, ‘one’. But one must admit that this can make one seem stuffy, mustn’t one?

TRICKY RULE #1! The words “Each” and “Every” can change a plural subject into a singular one. For instance, it is correct to say, “The players and the managers ate their lunch in silence,” but notice the shift in: “Each player and manager ate her lunch in silence,” or “Every player and manager ate his lunch in silence.”

TRICKY RULE #2! Indefinite pronouns (ones that do not refer to a specific singular person or item, like each, either, neither, anybody, nobody, everybody, somebody, anyone, noöne, everything, something, etc) might SEEM to be plural (there are lots of people in “everybody,” right?), they are almost always treated as singular pronouns. So it is correct to say “Nobody *is* here” or “Anyone who wants to earn a scholarship must be *a great athlete*.”

TRICKY RULE #3!! What happens if you have a compound subject with two singular nouns?!??! That depends. If the two nouns are divided by an either/or, then they still act like singular subjects, like in “Either the cat or the dog lost HER collar in the yard.” But if the subjects are being united together in their action, they become a plural subject like “Both the cat and the dog lost THEIR collar in the yard.” Finally, if you have NON-ESSENTIAL information between the subject and the verb (Think of the “Splitters” from our sentence writing books – phrases that divide the subject from its verb), those are NOT counted as a part of the subject and should be ignored for grammatical accuracy (e.g. “Maria, with most of her siblings, took HER place at the dinner table”).


Try any one of these quizzes: CLICK HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, or HERE

PLEASE NOTE – with the gender rule – the one that assumes that everybody is a man – grammarians are split. Yes, it is gramattically correct to say, “Somebody left his or her plates in the sink,” but if you have to use this clunky “his or her” more than once in a paragraph, it really starts to sound stylistically awful. Some people think “his or her” should be avoided at all times. And while it would be presumptuous to say “Somebody left his plates in the sink,” (women can be slobs too) this pronoun dilemma really comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils: Should I speak stiffly, but correctly (his or her dishes) or use a grammatical rule that feels exclusionary for the sake of style (his dishes)? Most choose the latter. If the gender of the singular noun is not debatable, like with “mother” or “uncle,” you do not need to say “his/her” (e.g. :Any mother can tell you what she knows to be true about airport security these days”).

Also, in 2015, the singular “they” was selected as the word of the year to reflect shifting gender politics (although the singular “they” goes back hundreds of years). Some examples of this usage would be to discuss a person without revealing his or her gender, as in “I met someone today and they were really cute,” and “I saw who took the bread and they ought to be ashamed of themselves,” or when the gender is unknown “I got cut off in traffic today, but couldn’t get their license plate number,” or in advice books for expecting parents (e.g. “If your baby cannot hold a grape in their hand…”) but most notably, to allow for a person who does not identify with a strictly male or female gender to use a singular pronoun. This usage hasn’t gained widespread grammatical acceptance yet (i.e. formal writing still considers the singular “they” to be a grammatical mistake **unless the formal writing is explicitly discussing gender identity**), but such usage has become common and accepted in conversational usage, and is an indication of how grammar can (slowly) evolve.

COMMON ERROR #4 – Nothing Personal (Who vs. Which vs. That)

OK, let’s get the easy one out of the way first. “Who” is a personal pronoun. “Which” and “That” are impersonal. That means (and I fear this may sound condescending, but this is a sadly common error) that whenever you are talking about a person, you must use “who” (or whom, of course) rather than “that” or “which.” I see a lot of sentences like the following: “Patrick Ewing was a basketball player that intimidated the opposing team,” or, “My aunt was the person that I looked up to the most as a child.” In both cases, the pronoun refers back to a human (“player” in the first sentence, “aunt” in the second), so you would have to use “who” instead of “that.”

Now for “which” vs. “that.” Both are impersonal pronouns. The difference between that and which is a dying distinction, but here it is: When the sentence requires a comma immediately before the pronoun in question, use “which.” If it doesn’t, use “that.” Two examples of correct usage: “He bought a car that runs on ethanol,” and “He bought a car, which is a four-wheeled metal structure.”

1) Paraphrase the following: “He bought a dog that surprises me.”

2) Paraphrase the following: “He bought a dog, which surprises me.”

3) The best player on the team will be the one (Who/Which/That) improves the most over the season.

4) Sandy was disappointed when she lost the instructions, (Who  / Which  /  That) are so important in building a bike.

5) Create a sentence or two that shows an understanding of how to use the pronouns “Who” “Which” and “That.”

COMMON ERROR #5 – The Predicate Nominative

Sounds frightening. But it isn’t. In short, a sentence is divided into a subject and a predicate. In “Bob walks all the time,” for instance, “Bob” is the subject and everything else is the predicate. If the predicate is a noun that refers directly back to the subject, as in “Bob is a suspect in the crime” or “Bob is a beacon of joy,” then you are using the predicate nominative (or, a noun in the predicate that is the same thing as the subject). Now, we’ve already covered that the subject pronoun is called the nominative, right? And if a pronoun in the predicate refers directly back to the subject (the nominative), then you use the nominative case. Perhaps examples would help. If you answer the phone and somebody asks to speak to you, you should say “This is he” or “This is she” (or whichever other pronouns applies to you) because the subject (“this”) and the predicate pronoun are the same person. Don’t let the swelling tide of anti-intellectualism dissuade you – master the predicate nominative. A few more examples: “The winner was she,” “It is I, Cindy Feldman” “The people on the committee are the Drakes and we”. Remember, if you reverse the order in a sentence like this, it still works (We are the people on the committee).

Just for practice, circle whichever sentence has a predicate nominative

Dave is a monkey                                                      Dave has a monkey

That actress is attractive                                        That actress is a dream come true

He wants to be a dentist                                         He is the best dentist

CIRCLE THE CORRECT PRONOUNS (not all of these are predicate nominatives):

1) It must have been (him / he).

2) The accident didn’t hurt (me / I ).

3) The pilots were (we / us), Samuel and (she / her).

4) He was surprised that it was (her / she) who had taken his money.

5) The only people in line were (them / they).

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