Pronouns - Graduate Writing Center

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Pronouns


Pronouns—words like “we,” “it,” “they,” “those,” “something”—stand in for nouns, sort of how someone might hold your place in line: they aren’t you, exactly, but they’re the equivalent of you in the structure of the line.

This proxy relationship is very similar to that between nouns and pronouns in a sentence: pronouns do the same work as nouns (and some other jobs to boot), but they’re not exactly the same.

The key difference is that nouns are self-defining—they are what they are—while pronouns are generic placeholders that acquire meaning as writers use them in concert with nouns:

Elizabeth I was 25 when she assumed the throne on January 15, 1559.

Why do we need such a tool? Primarily to avoid nearly maddening amounts of repetition:

Clausewitz argues this. Clausewitz further argues that. Clausewitz then expands on Clausewitz’s theory that Clausewitz set forth in Clausewitz’s prior volume.

It’s enough to put your readers at their witz’ end.

That said, while pronouns are certainly useful, their shifting signification can become ambiguous—and therefore an impediment to clarity—if writers don’t use them carefully.

That’s no reason to avoid them, though, and the following sections offer tips on adept pronoun use, while the links below further lay out the many useful things that pronouns can do for you, me, and everyone.

 

Subject vs. Object Pronouns

Subject pronouns indicate performance of an action (like grammatical subjects), while object pronouns indicate receipt of an action (like grammatical objects):

  • Subject: I submitted my third chapter this week.
  • Object: My advisor gave me comments.

Deciding whether to use the subject pronoun or the object pronoun can trip writers up when pronouns and nouns appear together, resulting in errors like these:

  • Me and you will reformat the tables while the others revise the analysis section.
  • The director consulted Charmaine and I about the glue budget.  

Temporarily removing the other noun(s) or pronoun(s) from these constructions can help clarify which pronoun is correct:

  • No: Me will reformat the tables while the others revise the analysis section.
  • Yes: I will reformat the tables while the others revise the analysis section.
  • Yes: You and I will reformat the tables while the others revise the analysis section.
     
  • No: The director consulted I about the glue budget.
  • Yes: The director consulted me about the glue budget.
  • Yes: The director consulted Charmaine and me about the glue budget.
     

Pronouns for People: "Who," "Whom"

When referring to human beings, use "who" and "whom":

  • No: To that end, this study seeks to understand the political calculations of longstanding autocrats that have stepped down voluntarily.
  • Yes: To that end, this study seeks to understand the political calculations of longstanding autocrats who have stepped down voluntarily.

Select "who" (the subject pronoun) when the person in question is performing an action; select "whom" (the object pronoun) when the person in question is receiving an action:

Nisbet, little critical examination of whom has made its way into the literature, was the advisor who, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for this shift in policy.
 

Pronouns for States, Organizations, and Other Entities: "It," "Its," "That," "Which"

Generally, when referring to states, organizations, and other collective entities, use "it" / "its" / "that" / "which":

  • No: The United States pursued their policy of containment throughout the Cold War.
  • YesThe United States pursued its policy of containment throughout the Cold War.
     
  • No: In 2006, the GAO, who had issued the original report, published an addendum that included data from the last five years of the program.
  • YesIn 2006, the GAO, which had issued the original report, published an addendum that included data from the last five years of the program.
     

Pronouns Links

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All-Topics Index


The following index makes searching for a specific topic easier and links to the appropriate place in the sequenced material. We think we have most of them, but please email us at writingcenter@nps.edu if we are missing something!

A-Z content menu

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

A

abbreviations

abstracts

academic writing

acronyms

active voice

apostrophes

argument

article usage

assignments, understanding them

audience

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B

body paragraphs

brainstorming

building better sentences tips

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C

capitalization

citations

citation software

citation styles

clarity

clustering

coaching sessions, about

colons

comma splices

commas, FANBOYS

commas, introductory

commas, list

commas, nonessential elements

commas, Oxford

commonly confused words 

compare-and-contrast papers 

concision

conclusions

conjunctive adverbs

coordinating conjunctions

copyright and fair use

critical thinking  

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D

dangling modifiers

dashes

dependent marker words

display equations

double submission of coursework

drafting

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E

editing your own work

editing: outside editors

exclamation points

executive summary

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F

FANBOYS

FAQs

footnotes

fragments

free-writing

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G

gerunds

grammar

group writing

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H

hyphens

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I

ibid.

incomplete sentences

introductions

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J

Joining the Academic Conversation

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L

LaTeX

library liaisons

lists, syntax of

literature reviews 

logic and analysis 

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M

mathematics

memos

methodologies

misplaced modifiers

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N

nominalizations

note-taking

noun clusters

numbers

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O

organization

outlining

Oxford comma

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P

paragraph development 

parallelism

paraphrasing

parts of speech

passive voice

periods

persuasion

phrases and clauses

plagiarism, how to avoid through citations

plain language

polishing

prepositional phrases 

prepositions

pronouns

publishing

punctuation

purpose of research

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Q

questions

quotation marks 

quoting

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R

reading with intent

redundancies                                                                

reference software

reflection papers 

research

research questions

reusing papers

reverse outlining

revision

roadmaps                                            

run-on sentences 

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S

self-citing

semicolons

sentence fragments

serial comma

subjects, grammatical

significance

so-what?

spelling

standard essay structure

STEM/technical writing 

style

subject–verb agreement

subordinating conjunctions

summarizing

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T

technical writing

that vs. which

thesis writing

thesis advisors

thesis process overview

thesis process tips

thesis proposals – common elements                                                     

thesis statements

this, that, these, those

tone, professional

topic sentences 

transitions

types of papers

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U

United States or U.S.?

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V

verbs and verb tense

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W

which vs. that

Why write?

writer’s block 

writing process

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Z

Zotero

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