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.
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.
- Yes: The 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.
- Yes: In 2006, the GAO, which had issued the original report, published an addendum that included data from the last five years of the program.