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Correct pronoun use

Pronouns are indispensable words that make it easy for a writer to refer to a noun without having to repeatedly use the specific name of a person, a place, or an object.

While we are all familiar with pronouns and we know that they function exactly the same way as a noun in a sentence, a problem can arise when an author uses a pronoun without specifying to which noun the pronoun is referring. This can happen when a pronoun is mentioned without a noun before it or if there is a complicated sentence that involves several nouns and it is unclear to which noun the pronoun is referring.

“They wanted the students to do their best on the tests.” In this sentence, it is not clear who “they” are. There is no noun at the beginning of the sentence. It is simply implied that the teachers are the ones who want the students to do their best; however, “they” could also be parents or administrators. The use of “they” is not clear here. Antecedents do not have to appear in the same sentence, but they should be very close by. It would be very clear who wanted the students to do the best on their tests if the prior sentence was: “The teachers worked hard to prepare the students.”

The pronoun “it” can be especially challenging. “We used the same procedure as before to prepare the samples and obtain the results. It was very complicated and we had to complete multiple steps.” The reader does not know to what “it” refers here. What exactly was complicated—using the same procedure, preparing the samples, or obtaining the results? If there is an unclear antecedent, it is best to replace the pronoun (in this case, “it”) with the noun (“the procedure”). If you use a noun first, it should be very clear what the pronoun is referring back to in the sentence.

Sometimes rearranging the order of the words can also help to clarify what you mean. Let’s look at an example. “If it is ready, please take the food out of the oven.” You should write instead: “Please take the food out of the oven if it is ready.” This second sentence makes it very clear that “it” means the food that is cooking in the oven.
It is best to be as specific as possible when you use pronouns in writing. If you use the strategies above, your writing will be clear to your audience and they will not be distracted by trying to determine which noun you are discussing.

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