Guide to the Marking of Written Assignments
by Ian Johnston
[This document is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone.  Released July 2000]


4.1 A pronoun is a word that stands in place of a noun. In order to make clear sense, the pronoun must clearly refer to a specific noun (what is called its antecedent). When the reference becomes unclear or awkward, the sense of a statement can become confusing. If there is any possibility for doubt, repeat the noun.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith arrived together. He is my supervisor.

In the above example he in the second sentence is ambiguous, since the reader does not know clearly to whom it refers. To clarify the reference, get rid of the pronoun, and repeat the noun.

Mr Jones and Mr. Smith arrived together. Mr. Jones is my supervisor.

4.2 Do not use a pronoun to indicate a noun which has not been specifically used as a noun in the previous sentence.

Ms Jackson's speech last two hours. I found her very interesting.

Since Ms Jackson is in the possessive in the first sentence, repeat her name instead of using the pronoun.

Ms Jackson's speech lasted two hours. I found Ms Jackson very interesting.

4.3 The pronouns which cause the most difficulty are this, that, and which. Be particularly careful not to use these words by themselves to refer to an entire idea in the previous sentence. If these words do not refer to a specific word in the previous sentence, then you must put a noun with them to clarify the sense.

I came last in the race. This upset me considerably.
When Sheila found her money stolen, this upset her considerably.

In the above examples, the word this refers to the entire idea in the previous clause, not to any specific noun in the sentence. Avoid using the word this in this manner. Instead supply a noun to go with it.

I came last in the race. This result upset me considerably.
When Sheila found her money stolen, this loss upset her considerably.

As a general rule, never use the word this by itself, unless it refers specifically to the noun immediately before it. If it does not, then provide a noun after this (as in the above examples).

4.4 In the same way be careful with the word which. If the word refers to the entire idea of the previous clause, then it has no specific word to refer to (no specific antecedent), and you will have to provide one. Notice the following example.

The money has not yet arrived, which is creating problems.

Here the which has no specific antecedent. Rewrite the sentence so as to provide one, as follows:

The money has not yet arrived, a delay which is creating problems.

Remember that unless the word which (like the word this discussed in 4.3) refers to a very specific word immediately before it, then you must provide one. You cannot leave the which by itself.

4.5 In formal writing, unless you are drawing up a list of instructions (as in this handbook), avoid using the pronoun you (or your) to mean anyone in general. Use a more specific general noun or pronoun, or use we.

In this story, you can see how the author is appealing to your emotions.
[The use of you and your here is incorrect. Use a general word like the reader or the pronoun we]

With statistics like those above, you can see that this is a serious problem.
[Rewrite this to get rid of the you: With statistics like those above, anyone can . . .]]

4.6 Avoid the sloppy use of it as a general pronoun. Instead of writing, for example, "It says in this book that. . . ." write "This book says that. . . ."

Similarly, avoid the expression, "By presenting the character in this way, it helps the reader. . . ." Say instead, "Presenting the character in this way helps the reader."

Often you can eliminate the unnecessary use of the word it with an appropriate adverb or by reorganizing the sentence more concisely:

It is clear that. . . . (Clearly. . . .)
It was obvious that. . . . (Obviously. . . .)
It was impossible for us to. . . . (We could not. . . .)
It is essential for the readers to. . . . (The readers must. . . .)
It says in this book. . . . (This book says)

4.7 Check carefully that whenever you use the pronoun it, the reader understands very clearly what the word refers to. When in doubt, repeat the noun. The careless use of it is one of the commonest mistakes with pronouns. Do not use it to refer to a complete idea in the previous clause; remember that it should have a specific antecedent.

The two women were unaware of the danger. It made them really careless.

The use of it here is incorrect, because the writer is using it to refer to the entire idea in the previous sentence (logically the word it here refers to the nearest noun, danger, and that reading is not what the writer means). Get rid of the it, and supply an appropriate noun, as follows.

The two women were unaware of the danger. Their ignorance made them really careless.

Here is another example:

When Gregor is transformed into an insect, it leaves him very confused.

The use of it here is incorrect, since the word has no clear antecedent (logically the word refers to insect). Rewrite the main clause, as follows:

When Gregor is transformed into an insect, the change leaves him very confused.

4.8 Pronouns must agree with their antecedents. That is, a plural antecedent will require a plural pronoun, and a singular antecedent will require a singular pronoun.

Students must hand in their work on time.
Each student must revise his or her own work.

4.9 When you use a general noun which is singular, then you must make sure any further pronoun references to the same person are also singular.

A person must be careful. He should carry extra money.
Anyone might get into trouble if she's not careful.
A person should have the right to control what happens to her own body.
A student has a right to see his transcript at any time.

If you have trouble remembering this point or find the expression awkward, then use a plural general noun (students) instead of the singular noun (student).

Be particularly careful with the word person. This word is always singular and must be accompanied by singular pronoun references. Do not follow the word person with plural pronouns (they, their, them) or a plural verb. If you want the pronouns and verbs to stay plural, then use the word people instead of the word person. If you want to retain the word person, then you will have to select an appropriate singular pronoun (he, him or she, her) and keep the verbs singular.

4.10 When using pronouns to refer to people in general, strive to avoid a clear gender bias in the selection of the pronouns (i.e., try to keep your style gender neutral). Here are some principles to follow in this regard:

4.10.1 If you are writing about people in general, then you can often keep the general nouns plural (e.g., people, readers, observers, and so on), so that you do not have to worry about the gender of the pronoun references (they, their, and so on).

4.10.2 If you use singular pronouns to refer to people in general, then alternate between the masculine and feminine forms (as in this handbook). Use he, him, himself for a group of such references, and then switch to she, her, herself. But be careful the switching back and forth does not confuse the reader (hence, you should not make such a switch in mid-paragraph).

4.10.3 Avoid the frequent use of the compound expressions he or she or him or her or himself or herself, and so on. Once in a while these expressions are all right, but repeated use of these in the same sentence is very awkward. Either make the general noun reference plural (e.g., people rather than a person), or select one gender and go with it. Never use strange abbreviations like he/she, s/he or (s)he or him/her or himself/herself.

4.11 Remember that the following words are usually singular and therefore require a singular pronoun: each, every, somebody, someone, anyone, everybody.

Each athlete must carry her own luggage.
No one will escape his fate.
Everybody must complete his or her own work.

Do not get into the bad habit of routinely following words like each, someone, anyone, everyone and so on with plural pronouns (e.g., they, their).

If you find this construction awkward, then set the expression up as a plural phrase, using the word all or use a plural general noun like people or students followed by a plural pronoun.

All athletes must carry their own luggage
All students must complete their own work.
People are always responsible for their own actions.
Students should hand their work in on time, if they wish to pass the course.

4.12 Some group nouns are singular, and others are plural. Match the pronoun reference to the form appropriate to the noun you are using. And make sure you are consistent in keeping the group noun singular or plural (so that if you are treating the group noun as singular both the verb and the pronoun reference are singular).

An army marches on its stomach.
The police have found their suspect.
The jury has delivered its verdict.
The company is going to expand its operations.
The Rolling Stones are beginning their tour of the US.

4.13 Where there is an option about whether or not a collective group noun is singular or plural (as in the names of companies, for example), be consistent in your use of pronouns to refer to that group (see 1.13 and 4.12). If you are not sure whether to make the collective word singular or plural add the word members of before the collective noun and make references to that plural. For example, if you are not sure whether a group expression like the college board is singular or plural, use instead the expression members of the college board, an expression which is clearly plural.

4.14 Some pronouns change their form, depending on whether they are subjects, objects, or possessives. The main ones are as follows:

Subject Form

Object Form

Possessive Form



mine, my
your, yours
their, theirs

Remember that when the pronoun is the subject of the verb, it must have the Subject Form (I, he, she, we, they, who) and that when it is the object of the verb or of a preposition, it must have its Object From (me, you, him, her, us, them).

Who ate my porridge? (Who is the subject of the verb)
Whom did you see sleeping in your bed? (Whom is the object of the verb)
She is taller than I.
I gave our books to him and to her.
There is the man whose father has just died.

4.15 The pronoun which causes the most difficulty by its change of form is the relative and interrogative pronoun (who, whom, whose). When the pronoun is the subject of the dependent clause or the question, use who. When the pronoun is an object of the verb or a preposition, use whom. And when the pronoun is a possessive, use whose.

There is the student who wrote my essay for me.
The man whom I paid has left town.
The runner whose time is below the standard is eliminated from competition.

4.16 Be careful of relative clauses (descriptive dependent clauses introduced by who, whom, whoever, whomever, and so on). Choose the form of the word which the dependent clause requires.

I will give the prize to whoever comes in first.
[Since whoever is the subject of the verb comes, it has the subject form. The form whomever would be wrong here.]

She is the accused who the jury determined is guilty.
[The form who is appropriate here because it is the subject of the verb is.]

4.17 Usually when a relative clauses is restrictive, the clause is introduced by who, which, or that. When the clause is non-restrictive, the writer should usually avoid using that. For clarification about restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers, see 3.3.

The person who killed the king has escaped.
The person that killed the king has escaped.
[In a restrictive clause either who or that is correct]

The new machine, which arrived yesterday, is broken.
[In a non-restrictive clause avoid using that rather than which]


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