Using pronouns correctly is important if your material is to be clear and correct. Unfortunately, all too often pronouns do not refer to the correct noun, which can confuse readers and obscure your meaning.
For your message to be clear, your pronouns—words like “it,” “they” and “everyone” —need to refer specifically to a given noun. What’s more, they need to agree with that noun in number, gender and person.
At the risk of reverting to my ol’ school teacher days, here are three rules to help you use pronouns correctly. I hope you find them helpful.
Pronouns need to refer clearly to a specific noun.
Make sure no other nouns with the same gender or number appear between the pronoun and its antecedent. (The antecedent is the noun to which the pronoun refers.) Otherwise, the reference may be unclear.
Incorrect: “Although the motorcycle hit the tree, it was not damaged.” (Is “it” the motorcycle or the tree?)
Correct: “The motorcycle was not damaged even though it hit the tree.”
Correct: “The tree was not damaged even though it was hit by the motorcycle.”
One way to assure you’re being clear is to draw a line from your pronoun to its antecedent. If another noun with the same gender or number appears between your antecedent and pronoun, revise the sentence.
Pronouns need to agree in number.
If the pronoun takes the place of a singular noun, use a singular pronoun. If the pronoun takes the place of a plural noun, use a plural pronoun.
Incorrect: “If a student parks a car on campus, they have to buy a parking sticker.”
Correct: “If a student parks a car on campus, he or she has to buy a parking sticker.”
Correct: “If students park their cars on campus, they have to buy parking stickers.”
Words such as “everybody,” “anybody,” “anyone,” “each,” “neither,” “nobody,” “someone” and “person” are singular and take singular pronouns.
Incorrect: “Neither of the girls brought their umbrellas.”
Correct: “Neither of the girls brought her umbrella.”
Incorrect: “Everyone ought to do their best.”
Correct: “Everyone ought to do his or her best.”
Note: The construction “he or she” or “his or her” is cumbersome, to say the least. To avoid it, if possible use a plural noun so that you can use “they” or “their” as your pronoun. If you use a singular noun and the context makes the gender clear, you can use just “his” or “her” rather than “his or her.”
Incorrect: “The candidate must provide their background information.”
Correct: “The candidate must provide his or her background information.”
Correct: “The candidates must provide their background information.”
Correct: “Each candidate for the Women of the Year Award must provide her background information.”
By the way, a company or business takes a singular verb and the singular pronouns “it” and “its,” rather than the plural pronouns “they” and “their.”
Incorrect: “The company released their earnings report.”
Correct: “The company released its earnings report.”
Pronouns need to agree in person.
Stay in one person, either first (“I”), second (“you”) or third (“he,” “she,” “they” and “it”).
Incorrect: “When a person comes to class, you should have your homework ready.” “Person” is third person. “You” is second. The two should not “mix.”
Correct: “When people come to class, they should have their homework ready.”
Correct: “When you come to class, you should have your homework ready.”
Hope this helps.