A Primer on Nouns and Pronouns

One of the most common issues I find in the books I edit deals with the use of nouns and pronouns. Most of us remember that nouns name a person, place, or thing. Pronouns refer to nouns. If you’re really into English, you probably know the noun that the pronoun refers to is called an antecedent.

Perhaps the problem between pronouns and antcedents began when we started making the English language politically correct. We stopped using the masculine pronoun as a default and, having nothing to replace it, we started using plural pronouns in place of singular.

If your eyes are glazing over, stay with me another minute, as I’m about to make my point, which is: A noun and its pronoun (antecedent) must agree in person and number. Examples: I must keep my cool. You must keep your money. John said he drove home that night. Ann likes her new apartment. The store won’t change its policy. The manager expects her staff to get along. The students demanded their grades.

The examples seem straight forward enough, but here are some examples I’ve seen in manuscripts I’ve edited. (1) A parent saw their child in trouble. (2) You have the person who learns from their experience. (3) An individual knows their own needs.

In each of the three examples above, the noun is singular and the pronoun is plural. Chicago Manual of Style, the book publishing standard, requires the noun and pronoun agree. A good writer will take on the challenge and rewrite the sentence to make that happen.

Here are a few more tips to improve your use of nouns and pronouns.

  • Use who and whoever when you can substitute he, she, they, I, or we. Examples: Who was promoted? Whoever wrote that?
  • Use whom and whomever when you can substitute him, her, them, me, or us as the object of the verb or the object of the preposition. Examples: Whom did you see today? I will speak to whomever answers the phone.
  • If two nouns are  joined by the conjunction and, the pronoun referring to them is plural. Example: John and Mary co-authored their book.
  • Watch collective nouns such as team or committee or staff or jury, as these are singular words that refer to one collection of people. Example: The committee took its break.
  • And, in general, avoid sexist language when possible. Examples: staffed instead of manned or firefighter instead of firemen.

Of course, how you use the language can depend on what you’re writing. For example, if your character uses sexist language, you need to write the character’s dialogue that way. If you’re writing a business book, you need to be mindful of sexism. But, in general, the tips I offer here should help you with the common use of nouns and pronouns.

Happy writing!

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