How to Effectively Use Pronouns in Academic Writing

Pronouns are usually called the understudies of English grammar as they play the role of stand-ins for nouns (that are then referred to as the antecedents of the pronouns).  Pronouns can be singular (I, me, he, she, you, it) or plural (they, them, we, us). Nonetheless, their roles are limited to replacement for either the subject or the object of a sentence:

The girl spent the weekend sewing the girl’s skirt so that the girl would have enough time to make alterations to the skirt on Wednesday.

The above sentence showcases how awkward and repetitive writing can be without pronouns. When appropriately used, the sentence can be re-written as follows:

The girl spent the weekend sewing her skirt so that she would have enough time to make alterations to it on Wednesday.

The antecedents (nouns being substituted) are evidently matched to each pronoun: her (the girl’s), she (the girl), it (the skirt).

Important Cases

Regarding the personal pronouns, maintaining a clear match between pronouns and their antecedents becomes easier if you keep in mind that pronouns come in three cases:

  • Subjective – the doer (subject) of the action: I throw the ball.
  • Objective – the receiver (object) of the action: Throw the ball to me.
  • Possessive – shows ownership: My throw struck the referee out!

Rules of Pronoun Use

To avoid noun repetition and use pronouns efficiently, you must remember the different types of pronouns and the way they can be used in a sentence:

  • Personal pronouns represent people or things: I came to see her yesterday.
  • Demonstrative pronouns point out someone or something: This is his glove; that is your helmet.
  • Relative pronouns relate one part of a sentence to another: One country that I’d like to visit someday is Bolivia (that relates to country).
  • Reflexive pronouns (also called intensive pronouns) reflect back to someone or something else in the sentence: You must ask yourself what you did to fall into this sticky situation (yourself relates to you).
  • Interrogative pronouns ask a question (interrogate): What on earth were you thinking?
  • Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a particular place or thing that has already been stated in a sentence. This can be puzzling because that thing may be very definite and can be singular or plural. For instance, someone/somebody and everyone/everybody.

Singular “They” and Gender-Neutral Pronouns

Changes in social perceptions can lead to changes in language and grammar, and perhaps nowhere has this been seen as conspicuously as with the use of pronouns. The following principles and examples illustrate some techniques that can help writers avoid the unnecessary and prejudiced use of gendered pronouns.

When a popular sports star joins Instagram, he or she gains millions of followers within days.

Instead, writers may substitute “he or she” with the singular “they”:

When a popular sports star joins Instagram, they gain millions of followers within days.

Revised, No Pronoun

A popular sports star who joins Instagram gains millions of followers within days.

A Simple Check

Learning all the rules of pronoun use can appear near impossible—so many types in so many cases! Nevertheless, checking the accurate use of a pronoun is relatively straightforward. First, read the sentence to yourself and trust your ear. An incorrect balance between pronoun and antecedent just won’t sound right:

Fidel Castro’s communist principles inexorably led to ideological differences between he and President Kennedy.

The ungrammatical “he” is a simple catch because the sentence doesn’t sound correct as written. When multiple antecedents are involved, you can check your pronoun use by substituting each antecedent with its original noun to check that you are using the right pronoun.

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